From the March 2015 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, has said he will move “heaven and earth” to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum to his city. As has become apparent in a rather tacky local drama, Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff for President Obama, is not going to let Frederick Law Olmsted get in his way, either.
The Barack H. Obama Foundation is expected to announce this month its choice of location for the library from among five proposed sites in three cities: Chicago, Honolulu, and New York. In Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago has offered to host the library on a 23-acre vacant site the city owns on the West Side. Emanuel has said the library can have the land if the site is chosen. Meanwhile, on the South Side, the University of Chicago is offering either of two sites for the library: 21 acres of Washington Park or 20 acres of Jackson Park. The parks are joined, and are Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s only parks in the Midwest. Washington Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2004.
Isn’t it big of the University of Chicago to plate up some historic public parkland it doesn’t even own for the president? But it turns out that the ownership question is no worry. Emanuel has promised to hand over whichever chunk of the Olmsted parks the Obama foundation wants. He made that decision after the foundation’s doubts about the South Side proposal became known over the ownership issue. And Emanuel is not experiencing any friction from the Chicago Parks District’s Board of Commissioners, the members of which are his political appointees. They voted unanimously to hand over the land to the foundation if the University of Chicago’s bid were to succeed. (Though it was sort of cute, and perhaps pointless in the larger scheme, that the board’s president, Bryan Traubert, recused himself from the vote because he is married to Penny Pritzker, Obama’s secretary of commerce. Where is there not a conflict of interest in this scenario?)
The idea of taking the parkland to build the Obama library has plenty of support on the South Side, where the Obama family lived before the presidency. Throughout the city, a Chicago Tribune poll in early February found, 62 percent of voters favor the idea, though the poll question mentioned neither Olmsted nor that dozens and dozens of acres of publicly owned vacant land lie near the proposed park site for the library. So you get a response that to the idea’s supporters sounds like the desired tyranny of the majority, under which most anything wrong can be considered righteous.
The opposition to the idea has been fierce but surprisingly isolated among die-hard parks advocates such as the Friends of the Parks group in Chicago and, nationally, the Cultural Landscape Foundation. If any parkland, let alone Olmsted and Vaux territory, can be seized so easily for rank political reasons, then those of us who consider parks sacrosanct have far bigger worries than just these 20 or so acres.
Credit: Map, University of Chicago; Washington Park, Photo © Lucas Blair, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.