SOUTH SHORE — Chicago's South Side has a bad reputation. But former President Barack Obama isn't having it.
Obama laid out his vision for his presidential library campus in Jackson Park Wednesday, and aside from describing how the campus will look, he shared an optimistic vision for South Side transformation.
"This isn't just about buildings," Obama said, after discussing his personal ties to the South Side. "As somebody who has not been right here in Chicago over the last couple years, whenever I visit, I tell people, Chicago's never looked more beautiful. It has never sparkled more. Last time we were here, it was one of those beautiful spring days before it gets cold again. And ... and it was just remarkable. And yet, if you ask a lot of people outside of Chicago about Chicago, what's the first thing they talk about? They talk about the violence."
Michelle and Barack Obama will donate $2 million of their own money to fund a summer jobs program here in an effort to combat that violence, he said, and though the library won't be completed for another four years, he said training needs to start now in order to hire qualified people from the neighborhood.
"We want to make sure that some of those young people can get trained so people don't say 'why didn't you hire anybody from the neighborhood?' And the contractor says, 'we didn't have anybody who was trained.' Well ... let's start the pipeline now so that we can start getting some of those folks trained," Obama said.
Obama said 80 percent of hires will be from the South Side, and aside from 200 to 300 permanent jobs at the library, he expects 2,000 jobs to be created in the surrounding area and up to 5,000 jobs citywide.
Obama also said South Siders need to have an open mind when it comes to making big changes in the neighborhood — including his foundation's plan to close the popular local shortcut Cornell Drive to make way for a sprawling park, museum and library campus. Cornell curls around the Museum of Science and Industry, eventually linking Lake Shore Drive to Stony Island and the Chicago Skyway.
"Jackson Park is beautiful, but let's face it — and I can say this because Michelle and I lived here, we went to the Museum of Science, it's not like we're outsiders here. When you drive through the park, it feels different than Lincoln Park does. It feels different than Millennium Park does. It is not used in the same way. ... It's not as good as it could be," he said. "In order to make it like that, we are recommending that we close Cornell that runs through right now. [There's a] six-lane road in the middle of the park. You can have kids playing next to a road, you can't have sledding into the road. You can't walk to the lagoon because there's no place to cross the street. Let's restore Jackson Park to the original vision."
Jackson Park. [Project 120]
Obama said removing a neighborhood shortcut will be a minor inconvenience according to traffic studies, and urged local residents to think bigger. Having a sprawling park, library and museum where people can grill by the lagoon, explore the wooded island, take in an outdoor concert would ultimately improve the entire community, Obama said.
"People enjoying the park and their activities in the park creates a sense of vibrancy and creates a spillover effect economically all the way throughout the area," Obama said. "If this is an attraction where people aren't just going inside a building, they're outside and barbecuing and flying kites and listening to music, now, that restaurant down the street, you know...why don't we try that out? I forgot something, there's a store right there, why don't we pick it up? It creates an energy and dynamism that isn't at Jackson Park [now]."
When asked by an audience member about how many people the library is expected to attract, the former president basically said the more the merrier.
"I just have to say ... it's a good thing to have more people," Obama said, estimating that the library and campus would attract around 700,000 visitors annually. "If you look at communities that are thriving, you have a mix of businesses and residential and foot traffic. .... A lot of times, what happens in development, you had these big blocks of development where nobody could walk. There weren't any small stores. There wasn't any foot traffic. Suddenly the streets are empty and ... people don't want it go to places where there are no people. It's also more of a security issue when there are no people on the streets. ... So ... we should not be afraid of wanting more people here."
Obama said this one project, if done correctly, can have major impact.
"[We believe it will be a] transformational project for this community," he said. "That it can bring economic development opportunities to this community, that it can spark and enhance good work that's already being done to make sure that our kids are always setting the horizons and expectations at a high level. ... We can stabilize communities that are full of hardworking, good people and small businesses. Make them thrive even more."