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Neighborhood pride competes with gentrification fears for Woodlawn residents coping with Obama Center traffic woes – Chicago Tribune

When the road construction around the coming Obama Presidential Center kicked into a new phase last month, South Shore resident Jane Carson said she took the longer bus rides home in stride because she knew it was for the greater good: a grand community space dedicated to the nation’s first African American president and first lady.

“I look over it (the traffic). It’s for Barack (Obama),” Carson said proudly as she and a friend waited for the bus at State and Lake streets on a recent afternoon. “I’m on the 6 all the time and I go through the traffic and the construction and I don’t mind,” she said of the Jackson Park Express bus route that snakes through Kenwood and Hyde Park on its way to the edge of South Shore.

Another No. 6 bus rider, Sharon Monson, shared Carson’s excitement for the center that is expected to transform Woodlawn by creating an elite tourist destination in an area that struggled with decades of disinvestment, neglect and redlining.

“It’s an inconvenience to them now, but it won’t be an inconvenience to them tomorrow. When it gets (constructed) it’s going to be beautiful,” said Monson, 58, a city worker who lives in walking distance of the center’s campus, which is expected to be completed by fall 2025. “It will do nothing but enhance the community around it.”

While the area undergoes this metamorphosis, residents are increasingly finding their daily routines upended by preparations for the center. Carson and Monson may be optimistic about the outcome, but others are fearful about everything from a snowy winter that could compound traffic woes for Stony Island commuters to concerns that development and the dreaded G-word will take root after decades of community resistance.

“This is nothing against the center,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, a longtime critic of the park selection process who has worked to thwart gentrification for area residents, ”but that traffic is going to get horrible. It’s going to take longer for you to get home coming from the North Side to the South Side.”

Mike Medina, an airplane mechanic who has lived in Woodlawn for 17 years, is watching the Obama campus construction with concern, somewhat fearful that the familiar corner of the neighborhood will be revamped for the primary benefit of downtown visitors.

Mike Medina is a self proclaimed Woodlawn historian who can discuss the history of jazz, historic buildings and the racial history of the area Nov. 19, 2022.

“I feel like when this is done, the eastern section of the neighborhood, from Stony east is going to be reconfigured in such a way that it’s not going to be easily traversable for people from South Shore or Woodlawn and vice versa,” said Medina.

“It’s hard to quantify it, but I just feel like there’s some sort of invisible barrier that is going up around the park that is essentially going to be: You will approach the park from the north … and the northwest, but you won’t get to the park from 63rd Street and … south of it. It just feels like that’s how it’s being built.”

Roadway traffic is just one of the quality of life problems cropping up for residents south of the presidential center campus. For some, it involves the clearance of thousands of trees, including hundreds of “heritage trees,” large, older trees considered to be irreplaceable. It led to the recent passage of a nonbinding referendum that opposed the removal of trees in Jackson Park.

For others, it involves the closure of Hayes Drive access to DuSable Lake Shore Drive and lane-narrowing on Cornell Drive that they say has made traffic on Stony Island Avenue worse.

A person talks on the phone while waiting for a No. 6 Jackson Park Express bus as another No. 6 bus waits in traffic in the northbound lane on South Stony Island Avenue at East 60th Street, next to the Obama Presidential Center construction site in Jackson Park.

A recent uproar arose when the Chicago Department of Transportation roadwork on Stony Island spurred the phasing out of five of the nine northbound bus stops between Marquette Road and 58th Street, leaving riders on three routes scrambling to learn where they could catch their bus. “That happened (to me). One morning I was was on the bus and that was an issue a couple of weeks ago,” No. 6 rider Chris Titus, 28, told a Tribune reporter as he waited to catch a bus home.

Titus has noticed an extra 20 or 30 minutes added to his commute from downtown to his home in Woodlawn.

Titus said communication with riders could be vastly improved but said he plans to stick with riding the bus line that averaged 4,000 weekday rides last year, according to the CTA. “I’ve just sucked it up and waited for the 6 because it’s most convenient for me to get on that bus, but lately it’s been a little bit more difficult.”

Taylor, who backed a successful city ordinance creating affordable housing on 52 city-owned vacant lots, home improvement grants and aid for new homebuyers, said the traffic problems are an example of how city officials could better communicate changes to residents, though she said Obama Foundation officials have made themselves available to address complications.

Chris Titus, waits for a No. 6 Jackson Park Express bus at State and Lake streets in downtown Chicago on Nov. 3, 2022. Titus has noticed an extra 20 or 30 minutes added to his commute from downtown to his home in Woodlawn.

“I feel like they’re more transparent about what they do. If there’s an issue or problem, we have somebody we can call and go to, so I appreciate that,” the alderman said. “And I feel like the city and (the Obama Foundation) are working together.”

The sprawling presidential campus will have walking spaces and meeting areas and is expected to bring an untold numbers of visitors to the new landmark near the Museum of Science and Industry campus.

The announcement of the center’s location in Jackson Park triggered rising home prices and the construction of new homes in the east section closest to the center on Stony Island.

If the center succeeds in adding value to the greater community and spurs a new business district, it would be a return to form for the former prairie that turned into a thriving business district with grand hotels, nightclubs, theaters and restaurants following the World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

East Woodlawn was largely segregated until the 1960s, when 90% of the white population left the neighborhood, replaced by poor residents living among old deteriorating buildings. The 63rd Street business district slowly eroded until little remained, while street gangs such as the Blackstone Rangers rose to prominence.

What followed were fierce battles between The Woodlawn Organization, a community group that worked to stave off decline, and the University of Chicago, which loomed as a threat to expand into its southern neighbor.

Part of the reason Medina said he moved to Woodlawn was because of his parents’ deep love for jazz clubs they frequented in the 1950s and 1960s. A drummer in his spare time, Medina said he’s always felt the connections with Woodlawn’s jazz greats of old.

“Growing up, I always knew of this neighborhood as being … the music that I heard in my house, that’s where it’s being made,” he said. “I don’t want to say ghost, but I’m walking around the neighborhood, and I can feel that presence of these musicians that I really admire … it’s still powerful for me.”

Mike Medina collects historical musical posters from Chicago Nov. 19, 2022. Part of the reason Medina moved to Woodlawn was because of his parents’ deep love for jazz clubs they frequented in the 1950s and 1960s.

Medina, 48, an unofficial neighborhood historian, runs a Twitter channel, McKie’s Disc Jockey Lounge, where he posts old photos of the neighborhood in its musical heyday. The channel is named for a legendary jazz club owned by disc jockey McKie Fitzhugh inside what had been the Strand Hotel at 63rd and Cottage Grove in Woodlawn.

“The history is going to change and I have a real fear that the unsung stories that come from this neighborhood are going to be forgotten as my neighbors retire and age out and move,” Medina said.

“I want to believe that there’s some equity for people who’ve spent their time and their lives in these neighborhoods, and I don’t know if it’s going to play out that way,” he said.

Medina, who is working to restore a 127-year-old two-story greystone, said all of his neighbors see the presidential center as a prize — with one condition. “I hope they do right by us. There’s that caveat to it as well. (The Obama Center) stands for a lot, and we want that it not be sullied by (the neighborhood) being forgotten about.”

In a written statement, a spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation touted the organization’s public engagement and its commitment to community concerns, such as local hiring, support for small businesses, youth programs and beautification.

“We will continue to work closely with the city to mitigate short-term traffic congestion as we work to build a world-class beacon of hope, and the economic catalyst that the South Side has deserved for so long,” the statement read.

A CDOT spokeswoman said Jackson Park’s “mobility improvements project team” gets regular feedback from residents and makes adjustments.

“The improvements that are being built through the current construction project will improve mobility to and through Jackson Park for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists coming from all areas of the city,” the spokeswoman said in an email.

Area residents were directed to jacksonparkimprovements.org for updates.

John Betancur, a veteran urban planning and policy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has long studied the effects of gentrification on the poor, said neighborhood groups have tools such as a well-structured community bargaining agreement to combat gentrification but said it’s likely too late in Woodlawn.

“I think gentrification is going to happen. I think the Obama (Center) is going to accelerate it. The University of Chicago is already doing it. People who don’t have income and cannot pay higher rents cannot stay there,” Betancur told the Tribune.

He described a brief peace before residents are priced out of the area. “There’s a transitional period when (residents) can enjoy what’s coming into the neighborhood, the new housing, new services, new retail, but there’s a period that is followed quickly by displacement.”

People board a CTA 6 Jackson Park Express bus at State and Lake streets in downtown Chicago on Nov. 3, 2022.

Betancur co-authored “Claiming Neighborhood: New Ways of Understanding Urban Change” with Janet Smith. “This is a struggle between powers, the power of developers working in tandem with the city and the power of low income people that generally don’t have much power to protest and oppose,” he said. “It’s something that cities are making happen because cities love development and love taxes, and development is coming at the expense of a population that don’t have much ability to resist but still do their best to resist.”

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Betancur, who studied displacement in Chicago’s West Town community, chided the former president for the potential disruption his landmark could have on poor families.

“The Obama (Center) is a great thing for Chicago, having a Black president is something we all continue celebrating, but it’s kind of repugnant that he is celebrating his presidency at the expense of the Black community,” the professor said. “That is not kind of nice.”

But Monson, who lives near the construction site, said she welcomes the presidential center and the large crowds it could bring to the community. “This is a free country. People can live wherever the hell they want to live. Who am I? I’m not judge or jury. If you OK with it, I’m OK with it.”

Carson is also pleased about what the center means to the city and the community and doesn’t mind flaunting her satisfaction.

“Tell them Jane said ‘Too bad. So sad. Live with it.’ ”


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