The lush landscapes of the lagoon, golf course, playgrounds and lovely birds chirping in shady trees frames the idyllic Jackson Park area that in a year breaks ground for the Obama Presidential Library and Center. On this point, elected officials, community activists and the Obama Foundation spokespeople agree. Where there seems to be some difference of opinion is how to get there, and what might the final picture look like? That’s where our story begins.

On June 29, the Obama Foundation sent a letter to officials and activists announcing a survey to help gauge citizen interest in different aspects of the Library’s development. Signed by Michael Strautmanis, Vice President of Civic Engagement, it reads:

This past week, 800 Chicagoans joined us at the City of Chicago’s public meetings to discuss the future of the Obama Presidential Center and Jackson Park. We also received nearly 400 submissions to our landscape survey, through which Chicagoans shared how they currently use Jackson Park and how they’d like to see it evolve.

Thank you to everyone who has shared feedback with us so far. Your input will inform our next steps and how the Obama Presidential Center and its surrounding landscape can become a place to bring the community together.

We wanted to share just a few of the important insights we learned from you this week:

  • We heard positive feedback about the mix of amenities being offered — from the sledding hill to the public lawn, community gardens, and walking paths.
  • Survey respondents were most interested in a community plaza to host special events and markets; wildlife observation around the Vegetated Basin, Woodland Walk, and Lagoon; and picnics, barbecues, or large outdoor events at the Lawn.
  • 42% of survey respondents walk, bike, or take the bus to visit the park.
  • There is a strong desire to focus on young people’s experience at the Obama Presidential Center, giving youth on the South Side a safe and engaging place to learn and play.
  • Jackson Park is among the best places in the state to go bird watching, and bird lovers urged us to protect the birds and their natural habitats.
  • Some residents, and parents in particular, were supportive of creating parkland over Cornell Drive because of concerns about children running and playing close to the six-lane road. Others had concerns about impact on traffic and urged the City of Chicago to consider road improvements that protect commuters from increased travel times.

Here’s where it gets a little funky. Alderman Leslie Hairston, a Hyde Park-native and progressive lawyer whose 5th Ward includes the Jackson Park area, has held three well-attended community meetings in the last week or so to get input –Wednesday June 21 at South Shore Cultural Center (where another meeting is planned Tuesday July 11,) Saturday June 24 at Hyde Park High School, and Tuesday June 27 at La Rabida Hospital. “Something odd occurred at the Tuesday meeting,” said Gabriel Piemonte, a Woodlawn resident who directs the Woodlawn Voices and Visions youth media group at 65th and Stony Island. “While it’s not totally clear if Alderman Hairston’s staff called the police on community residents from her ward who showed up Tuesday at a venue that only holds 75 people considering there were hundreds at previous meetings,” he said in a June 30 telephone conversation. “…what is clear is she booked a room way too small to accommodate all of the interested people, which to me is anti-democratic and suggests that residents’ wishes might be dismissed by politicians. That gives us the blues.”

On June 28, Alderman Hairston called the suggestion that she or her staff called the cops on community residents “a blatant lie.” In a telephone conversation with me from her City Hall office she said, “I didn’t call the police, nor did my staff. There were bike patrols for the bicycles that were not properly parked and there were some illegally parked cars. I had a few license plate numbers I mentioned at our meeting, which was part of the on-going process to gather input – a listening tour. I believe some bad people are out there trying to muddy the waters of our process. I don’t know their names. I know them when I see them. I heard they were posting erroneous information on Facebook to confuse our citizens. As of now there is no more news.”

According to the Chicago Police Department’s Office of News Affairs: “There were 3 calls made, all of which were from the hospital saying that cars were blocked into the parking lot and people were drinking.  Officers responded and it does not appear that anyone was arrested.”

When the dust clears from the he said/she said intrigue that could mirror distinct class disputes and perhaps political ones considering city elections are 18 months away,  here’s other remaining issues: the future of the beautiful bird sanctuary that some people want moved and some don’t; the future of Cornell Drive where some people want closed to traffic and some don’t; the future of where citizens who want to have park barbecues and those who want to deny working-class culinary cook-outs; and the future of who will have access to the golf course and who won’t will hopefully be amicably resolved before the 2018 groundbreaking at the picturesque area that exists from Cornell Drive to Stony Island, 60th to 63rd. At least that’s what outlined in the conclusion of the Foundation letter obtained by the Chicago Defender.

“In the months ahead, we will use this feedback to help guide our next steps and shape our design,” Strautmanis wrote. “We will also be hosting more meetings with community residents, so keep an eye out for future events. Working together, President and Mrs. Obama believe we have an opportunity to create a vibrant hub for the community in Jackson Park. We greatly appreciate your willingness to join us in the process.” And I’m guessing the birds do, too.

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