Once teeming with businesses like International Harvester and Western Electric, the riots following Martin Luther King’s death in 1968 left much of North Lawndale in ruins.
Now the prospect of landing the first black president’s library and museum on the corner of Kostner and Roosevelt Road could bring new life to North Lawndale, which is pock-marked by vacant lots and abandoned buildings.
“There is plenty of room here for development … [and] the library could be a great vehicle for that,” said Paul Norrington, founder of the North Lawndale Presidential Library Committee.
That idea resonated throughout a community meeting hosted by the committee last Saturday, Nov. 22, at Penn Elementary School, 1616 S. Avers. The meeting, which drew more than 250 residents, discussed the potential economic impact the library could have on the neighborhood.
The West Side community, in partnership with the University of Illinois Chicago, was one of four sites selected as finalists for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum. Other sites in contention are ColumbiaUniversity in New York, the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and the University of Chicago on the city’s South Side.
The meeting included an overview of the North Lawndale UIC proposal, which showed the shared history between UIC and President Obama. But the hallmark of the proposal was development of an economic corridor along Roosevelt Road.
UIC’s Michael A. Pagano said the facility would generate jobs, new businesses and tourism, with the museum being the biggest draw. Typically, presidential museums attract about 2 million visitors annually as opposed to 50,000 at the library, which will house Obama’s official papers and documents from his two terms in office and mainly be used for research.
“It’s the museum that is more important for generating jobs and foot traffic, not the library so much,” said Pagano, dean of UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.
To be a destination, it must have hotels, restaurants and access to transportation. Pagano hopes to have the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs housed there as well.
“Once the award is made, we can start designing the economic coordinator and identifying the kinds of enterprises and activities that might be built in the area,” he said.
State Rep Art L.Turner (9th) also called the library a huge economic driver for the community because it means infrastructure, improved transportation and new businesses.
“These are putting tax dollars back into the community, employing people, encouraging folks to move back into the neighborhood and build it up,” he said. “It’s a rough area but things are gonna change. Things are changing now.”
NL committee member Darren Tillis said the facility “will be transformative” in several areas, but especially in education. The neighborhood has seen several schools closed over the years.
“Our community in North Lawndale has been challenged on the education front,” Tillis said. “When we put that $500 million library here in North Lawndale, we can’t have a subpar education system anymore.”
North Lawndale and UIC joined to submit a proposal in the multistep process to select the library site. The group’s final proposal must be submitted by Dec. 11 to the Obama Foundation which oversees the selection process. The final decision is up to President Obama and first lady Michele Obama, who must fundraise to build the library that will be run by the National Archives. Their decision could come in March.
“They are the only two votes that matter,” Pagano said, noting that building the library is multi-year process that could be completed by 2020.
The partnership between the community and the university gives North Lawndale an edge. The proposal is the only one that features a partnership between the community and an institution of higher learning, said NL committee member Marcus Betts.
“Our counterparts in the city of Chicago and others have put forth … proposal[s], but there really has not been an emphasis on uplifting an entire community.”
The partnership, Betts added, leverages North Lawndale assets. The area, he said, has the highest concentration of greystones, synagogues that are now Baptist churches, and is the home of the original Sears Tower.
“These are community assets — and then the people,” he said.
The residents need to come out in strong support for the library, Norrington said. He urged residents to get involved and start preparing for the construction jobs the library could bring. If those things don’t happen, “we will be standing on the corner watching cars drive [into] our neighborhood to do the jobs we didn’t prepare ourselves to do,” Norrington said.
North Lawndale resident Genise Greene wants the library for the jobs it will bring, especially for the youth.
“I think this would be something good for them to get them off the streets,” Greene said.
Having the library for the first black president in a predominantly black neighborhood would be empowering, added Tonja Harris, a teacher at Frazier Prep Academy.
“It is something our kids can look up to. It will bring a sense of pride to our community — something we are lacking right now,” Harris said. “Just to have the library here, I think it will be a momentous change in the mindset of students and the community.”