‘Don’t Want Us Here’: Barack Obama’s Center Promises to Bring $3.1B to Chicago’s Southside, But Some of Its Black Residents Say It’s Gentrifying Their Neighborhood, Pricing Them Out

Chicago residents are complaining that the new Obama Presidential Center is gentrifying the city’s South Side and causing rent for locals to rise.

As a result of higher rent, neighborhoods like South Shore and Woodlawn near the Jackson Park site of the project have seen a rising amount of people losing their homes.

But those working with the president’s $500 million library believe the center will bring billions of dollars into the local community, affording the same people that helped Barack Obama get elected access to the economic development of the area, according to the Washington Post.

Groundbreaking Held In Chicago For Obama Presidential Center
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – SEPTEMBER 28: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (L) joins former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on September 28, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Construction of the center was delayed by a long legal battle undertaken by residents who objected to the center being built in a city park. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A proposal to quash concerns was offered to officials in February. A referendum from almost 90 percent of Southside voters stated politicians should develop more affordable housing in the area. It also demanded aid to renters and homeowners in proximity to the center to neutralize the rising costs of living since the center started being built.

However, months later, that proposal is still in limbo waiting for the mayoral race to be determined.

Still, individuals are nervously asking, “Will our rents be raised?” or “Will we have to move?”

Newly elected Mayor Brandon Johnson said in March while campaigning he is concerned about people getting “pushed out.”

“What happens in communities where there is economic development is families get pushed out because of property value raises,” Johnson said. “We have to make sure, for families that live in the very communities where economic development is taking place, that landlords don’t see it as an opportunity to push the families out who have been a part of these communities for decades.”

Since 2015, housing costs for the three ZIP codes in proximity to the center have increased. Renters pay 43 percent more than they did before the center’s location was announced and the value of properties in the area spiked by 130 percent — 50 percent higher than the average U.S. home.

William Sites, a professor in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago, said this is to be expected.

According to his expertise, inflation to “exacerbate existing affordability challenges for many low-income residents” would be unavoidable with a development of this magnitude.

Michele Williams, an 80-year-old community staple who now gets around in a walker, said it is important to put the center in context and accept what she believes is coming down the pipeline.

“The Obama Center is not being built for Chicago. It’s being built for the world,” she said, before noting the people of the world “don’t want us here.”

Constituents argue that ensuring that the center isn’t displacing longtime residents does not only benefit locals but also the legacy of President Obama.

“This is the community that sent him to the White House, and we should be the community that gets to stay and benefit from the presidential center,” argues Dixon Romeo, the founder of the Not Me We organization.

Romeo is not only speaking out against the center but also the $800,000 condominiums being built in the community. He said during a podcast with AirGo, “Even when it is not connected to the former President Obama, this is the story, It’s like our community has never had anything.” 

The activist’s 62-year-old mother Priscilla Dixon agreed, saying, “In political spaces, people can become numbers, experiences can become trends.”

“But the reality is that this is about real people,” she continued. “And we don’t want the Obama Center — the center honoring the first Black president — to be another page in the long history of displacing Black people or doing harm to Black families.”

Right-wing conspiracists took the concerns of the people and are framing it as if the first Black president of the United States does not love Black people.

One Twitter user shared a right-wing leaning article and wrote, “Hmmm, Barry don’t like Black folk: Residents of Chicago’s South Side Say Obama Presidential Center ‘Causing Harm’ to Black Families.”

One person erroneously tweeted, “Obama becomes a billionaire as President … and wants the residents of Chicago to cover $500 million for his Center in Chicago. That will in evidently displace lifelong residents who put him in the white house.”

Another person tweeted that the library is self-glorifying, “The Obama Center in Chicago is NOT his presidential library. It is his vanity center.”

The Obamas said their desire to come to the Southside was because they wanted to give back to the predominately Black community that has supported him over the years.

“It feels natural for Michelle and me to want to give back to Chicago and to the South Side in particular,” Obama said in 2021. “The Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us.”

According to The Obama Foundation, the center is projected to bring $3.1 billion into the Southside in its first decade. An estimated $16.5 million in indirect and induced state and local tax revenue is believed to be funneled into the community.

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