PULLMAN — In February 2007, Barack Obama launched his historic march to the White House with a speech that recounted years he spent as a young organizer in Chicago that helped launch his career in politics.
"My work took me to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. ... I saw that the problems people faced weren't simply local in nature — that the decision to close a steel mill was made by distant executives; that the lack of textbooks and computers in schools could be traced to the skewed priorities of politicians a thousand miles away, and that when a child turns to violence, there's a hole in his heart no government could ever fill," Obama said. "It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had."
The future U.S. president was talking about the three years he spent as a community organizer in Pullman and Roseland.
In the '80s, Obama often held coffee klatches at the McDonald’s on 115th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue.
He worked as a community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens public housing apartments on the city’s southernmost border.
He prayed with South Side preachers who taught him the “true meaning” of his Christian faith.
Nearly 30 years later — and six years into Obama’s presidency — Roseland and Pullman remain plagued by the heartbreaking urban realities of prolonged poverty, hopelessness and desperation.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) and a collection of community leaders have a plan to change that, but they need Obama's help.
So Beale partnered with Obama’s political mentor, former state Senate President Emil Jones, to put together an exploratory committee of local leaders lobbying to bring the Obama Presidential Library to the Far South Side. Beale has a specific site in mind — the historic Pullman factory site at 111th and Cottage Grove Avenue.
They hope to appeal to the president’s heart.
“Our application will remind him how he got his start, where he got his start and the community needs him,” Beale said. “We need him to put that library here to have economic impact on this community.”
On Wednesday, Beale stood under the magnificent Pullman Administration clock tower — rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1998 — a hardly used jewel where neighbors tend to an urban garden and beekeepers collect honey.
“No other sites can hold a candle to what [the Obama Library] can do for this community,” Beale said. “It would complement this gorgeous clock tower. ... It’s really breathtaking integrity of architecture that allows you to see such rich history in our community. So much rich history. This is something you can’t pay for. It’s priceless.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, recently named Pullman one of his neighborhood impact zones and outlined plans to support new business, fast track street and sewer repairs, push for Metra station makeovers and back a plan to designate the historic neighborhood as a National Park.
“The library goes along with mayor’s goal to revitalize and have a major impact on this community,” Beale said.
But Beale knows the political reality: Pullman is a long shot.
Most people expect Obama to pick a location near the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, the neighborhood where he and the first lady shared their first kiss.
There’s a collection of people who want the library in Bronzeville, the neighborhood north of Obama’s Kenwood mansion, on the former Michael Reese Hospital site that offers sweeping lakefront views.
And folks in Hawaii, Obama’s birth state, hold out hope the president will select a little slice of paradise on the University of Hawaii campus.
So, Beale intends to appeal directly to Obama on behalf of the people who once inspired the president’s political vision.
“It’s going to be the president’s decision and solely his decision,” Beale said. “I just think that for the president to reach back to the community where he got his start would be a huge gesture. It’s a way to say thank you by creating thousands of jobs and tourism and more security to stabilize the community. There’s no other place that it can have a larger impact, and people’s lives will change. The community would change. The way people perceive the community would change.”
And the library would build hope amid so much hopelessness, Beale says.
“Hope and change is what the president ran on,” the 9th Ward alderman said. “So bring the hope and change to the community where he got his start.”
“What a lot of people don’t know,” Beale reminded me on that overcast afternoon, “is before the community was named Roseland or Pullman it was called Hope.”
And it’s true. That’s what early Dutch farmers called that corner of the Calumet Region in the 1840s — a generation before it was renamed Roseland and George Pullman built his railcar factory and company town there in 1880.
“Everything fits as far as what we’re doing here. Hope and change is what the president ran on,” Beale said. “So bring the hope and change to the community where he got his start. All these things go together.”
He looked excited and energized — like a man who finally had fate on his side.
I asked Beale how he’d feel if Obama picks a place other than Pullman for his presidential library.
“Well, then, basically,” he said, taking a deep breath, “we’d just be getting more of the same.”