There is approximately one mile of separation between 1515 S. Hamlin Avenue — the site of the dilapidated tenement strategically targeted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to be the base of operations for the Civil Rights Movement’s northern front in 1966 — to the 32 ignored acres that run along Kostner Avenue between Roosevelt Road and West 5th Avenue.

Paul Norrington, a founding member of the North Lawndale Presidential Library Committee  along with officials at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), is pitching the site’s strategic advantages to the Barack Obama Foundation — particularly its positioning along the Eisenhower Expressway and proximity to the western suburbs, among other attractive assets.

But they’re also trying to sell the foundation on the site’s symbolism, representing just the kind of depravity and hopelessness that a former community organizer, buoyed by the legacy of a dreamer, claims he campaigned for the presidency to change.

Supporters of the North Lawndale-UIC proposal believe their bid is much more consistent with the “core” principles of the library site laid out by the foundation in its RFQ (request for qualifications), such as the selected site “encourages smart and sustainable economic growth; anchors public and private investment; celebrates and leverages existing community assets; possesses a civic identity … shaped by community; [is] identified as part of the fabric of the community” and represents “the ideals of the Obama campaign: respect, empowerment, inclusivity.”

“We present a networked site central to the story of progressive politics in America,” states a passage in the overview of the final proposal pitched by UIC in conjunction with the North Lawndale community.

The proposal touts the images of Martin Luther King and Jane Addams, among other progressive reformers, to drive home the point.

“To prioritize the progressive and pragmatic ability of the Library to support social and economic equity requires the radical redefinition of what traditionally constitutes a ‘site’,” the UIC proposal states.

But in the wake of recent developments in the library process, particularly with the Sun-Times reporting that the “foundation board and staff is worried about the ‘unsettled nature of future leadership’ [at UIC], the pressure on the underdog North Lawndale site has been ramped up. And so has the aggressiveness of the bid’s moral appeal.

Perhaps the most overlooked of the four finalists — it is competing with the U. of C., Columbia University in New York City and Hawaii — the North Lawndale-UIC proposal hopes that its progressive pitch will compensate for what it sorely lacks relative to its elite competitors.

The U. of C. and Columbia together boast endowments of more than $17 billion. Moreover, both can offer access to money and resources that UIC, an entity with a relatively meager $675 million endowment, cannot.

The latter, as a public, taxpayer-funded, institution, is severely limited by how much it can subsidize a presidential library. Privately funded U. of C. and Columbia — which together regularly attract money from mega-multimillionaires and billionaires, and count many of the president’s team of present and former White House advisors, to say nothing of the President himself, among alumni, faculty and staff — are not.

Some supporters say that the striking disparity is all the more reason to locate Obama’s library on the West Side.

“If [Pres. Obama] wants to be consistent with the message he’s given throughout his presidency, it really only makes sense to give it to us,” Danielle Leibowitz, a UIC student trustee, told the AP in an article late last year. “To suddenly hand over your legacy to a private institution seems rather hypocritical,” she said.

“If you think about what Martin Luther King Jr. would do, where he would put a project like this, I think the answer becomes very clear. … It really boils down to the have[s] and the have-nots,” Marcus Betts, a spokesman for the North Lawndale Presidential Library Committee, told the AP for the same article. 


Practicing what they pitch?

But UIC hasn’t always been a paragon of progressive politics and social activism, say some of those who nonetheless support the North Lawndale proposal. Lately, there’s even been some subtle questioning within the North Lawndale Presidential Library Committee of UIC’s commitment and whether its social justice rhetoric is more pitch than purpose.

In a Dec. 28 statement posted to its Facebook account, after touting the mutually beneficial nature of a UIC-North Lawndale partnership, the committee noted: “North Lawndale needs to protect itself from unbridled expansion. This could happen through increased property taxes and rent, and by eminent domain, in which property is forcibly taken,” the statement reads.

“Some type of rent and property tax freeze could effectively address the pricing issue. Eminent domain is a different thing. The thing that causes the most concern over a partnership with UIC was UIC’s history of expanding into communities.

“When UIC’s first Chicago campus was built in the 1960s, whole multiethnic neighborhoods, [their] buildings and people, were wiped off the city’s map. … This happened again the ’90s with another UIC expansion. Well-meaning or not, UIC has a history of neighborhood replacement instead of community development.”

And in a recent email statement submitted to the Austin Weekly News, Paul Norrington said the “prospect of wholesale community displacement is something that should be addressed with transparency. As of now, I am not aware of any safeguards in place or being discussed.”

Well-known Lawndale activist and Lawndale Alliance member Valerie Leonard suggested that, regardless of where the library lands, it should be accompanied by memoranda of understanding (MOU’s) similar to those enacted during the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

“North Lawndale has not had coordinated development in 60 years,” said Leonard, who is also a supporter of the library coming to North Lawndale. “It was a poor neighborhood when Martin Luther King was here. This project would jumpstart things. I almost wholeheartedly support it.”

Leonard said what holds her back from supporting the bid full-throttle is the prospect of neighborhood displacement similar to UIC’s past expansion efforts.

“I get concerned when they talk about changing the residential grid,” she said. “North Lawndale was never meant to be an extremely dense community. … The UIC South Campus looks like downtown. I don’t want downtown in North Lawndale. I like the neighborhood feel and the 2-3 story walk-ups. Developers [on the other hand] like broad, tall buildings.”

The MOU’s, Leonard noted, although not legally binding, would nonetheless put the City Council on the record as having an interest in protecting the economic and community wellbeing of North Lawndale residents.

“For the Olympics, the protections were implemented for every place within a one-mile radius of a venue,” she said. “I’d like to see that kind of thing put in place regardless of [where the library is built in the city]. It would put a reign on development.”


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