CHICAGO – Former President Barack Obama felt at home in his old neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side Wednesday where he unveiled the latest plans for his Presidential Center and told onlookers that he and his wife Michelle will donate $2 million to fund summer jobs programs for at-risk children.
The roundtable event was held at the South Shore Cultural Center where two prominent Chicago couples were married. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who introduced the president, and his wife Amy and the Obamas celebrated their weddings at the Chicago landmark.
Obama’s visit was intended to continue a dialogue with the local community and to “describe the basics of what we hope the Obama Presidential Center will be,” he said.
Among those joining the former president in the discussion were Michael Strautmanis, vice-president of public engagement for the center and Dina Griffin representing the Chicago-based Interactive Design Architects, the center’s lead designers.
Obama did not engage in politics during the event, clearly putting the focus on the Presidential Center and not once mentioning President Donald Trump.
He began his remarks by reminding the attendees of his deep roots in the community. He and Michelle purchased their first home in the neighborhood, his children were born at the nearby University of Chicago Hospital and he taught law at the University of Chicago’s campus.
All three are within walking distance of the planned development and the former First Lady was raised nearby as well. The exuberant crowd erupted when he drove the point home, saying “I’m home!”
Although there was an open-bidding process to design the center, “it had to be on the South Side of Chicago”, he said.
In his remarks, Obama repeatedly stressed that the center’s planners hope to improve the neighborhood and the lives of its residents. While he proudly proclaimed, “Chicago’s never looked more beautiful. It’s never sparkled more,” he also cautioned attendees that violence is the first thing outsiders mention when asked about the city.
Griffin agreed with the former president’s vision, stating, “It’s not just about building a building, it’s not just about building a monument.”
While the center will include traditional museum pieces such as dresses and campaign posters, the former president said it will not be a “monument to the past” but will “create something for the future.” Among its offerings will be programs to teach filmmaking, community organizing, and music in order to train the next generation of activists who will “make a difference in their communities, their country and the world.”
He also stressed that the center is intended to be a “transformational project for this community” and can generate hundreds of permanent jobs at the center itself and thousands of construction jobs.
The construction of the center is projected to be completed four years from now but the former president and former first lady’s donation will happen this year in order to train young people to be ready to participate in the construction of the project when the time comes.
The center will be situated in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park, site of the 1892 Columbian Exposition originally designed by Frederick Olmsted, considered the father of American landscape architecture. Obama said he hopes the “people’s park” he envisions will “restore Jackson Park to the original vision.”