The White House is expected to make the official announcement in the next several weeks, but considering how anxiously Chicago, New York and Hawaii were awaiting the decision there was little chance that it could have been kept secret. The University of Chicago, a place where both Barack and Michelle Obama worked earlier in their careers, was considered the frontrunner all along.
Sources say that there are still two sites at the University of Chicago where the library and museum will go—Washington Park or Jackson Park.
There was also some juicy news for both New York and Hawaii in the media reports. The president may be planning to locate his offices and the Barack Obama Foundation in New York City, where he might do the actual work of his post-presidency—similar to the setup of former President Bill Clinton, who built his library, museum and institute in Little Rock but operates his foundation in Harlem (though it’s not clear that he still spends much time in Harlem). According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama’s offices might be built in West Harlem on land owned by Columbia, the president undergraduate alma mater and the University of Chicago’s main competition for the library.
In addition, the president may give Hawaii the go-ahead to build a “presidential center” that could serve as a big tourist destination, highlighting Obama’s connection to the islands. The site selection process was led by Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who serves on the Barack Obama Foundation board, and her husband, Konrad Ng, who live in Honolulu.
That would make the University of Illinois at Chicago, which was the biggest longshot, the only one of the four finalists that would get nothing.
If the president’s library and museum are indeed placed at the University of Chicago, the Obamas surely will work hard to make it as accessible to the surrounding Hyde Park community on Chicago’s South Side, where Michelle grew up. The university’s hostile relationship with the surrounding African-American community has long been an issue—and in fact was part of the focus of Michelle’s job as director of the University Community Service Center, which she held in her thirties while Barack was teaching at the university’s law school.
This is what Michelle once said about the university, according to Peter Slevin’s new biography of the first lady, Michelle Obama: A Life: “I grew up five minutes from the University and never once went on campus. All the buildings have their backs to the community,” she said. “The University didn’t think kids like me existed, and I certainly don’t want anything to do with that place.”
This view was particularly pointed, considering that her mother Marian worked as a secretary in the university’s legal office in the 1970’s when Michelle was in high school.
When she took over the Service Center, she said it “gave me the opportunity to express my concerns about how little roll the University plays in the life of its neighbors. I wanted desperately to be involved in helping to break down the barriers that exist between the campus in the community.”
“I know the community does not trust and understand the university, and the university does not trust and understand the community,” she said at the time. “Until you can bridge those gaps and hear out both sides and understand why they are afraid, you can’t really have a conversation.”
She stayed in that particular job for five years, during which time she gave birth to her first daughter, Malia. She then moved in 2001 to become Director of Community Outreach for the university’s medical center, a job in which she could more directly help communities in the South Side—and the last job that she would have before her life became subsumed by her husband’s soaring political career several years later.