Jackson Park was the right choice

Note: These thoughts are very heavily indebted to Mary Pattillo’s writing, especially her excellent article in the Tribune: “Plenty of good room for Obama Library—just not in Washington Park.”

Last week we heard that the Obama Presidential Library, Museum, and well, “general public edifice which the reader’s imagination will fill” will be located in Jackson Park rather than Washington Park. And my corner of the twittersphere was full of dismay— “It could have done so much for the neighborhood around Washington Park,” was the general tone.

That’s an important consideration, but it lays aside equally important issues about what the Library will do to already existing uses of the park, and this is where Jackson Park was clearly the right choice. I’m aware that we’ve given up on the prospect of building on private land—and I really don’t know why (cough, Chicago politics, cough, I guess)—but given the choice between Washington and Jackson Parks, the Jackson Park location will be significantly less disruptive to current users of the park.

This may seem like an odd claim: we’re going to have to tear down a (very nice) running track and football field, used by Hyde Park High School right across Stony Island Avenue. We’re going to lose a baseball and a softball diamond, also used by the school. But these are public, institutional uses of the park—they can also be moved relatively easily to the huge expanses of open/soccer fields further east in the park.

The users of Washington Park, on the other hand, are individuals, families, groups having ad hoc or planned gatherings—family or fraternity reunions, whatever. These are people without institutional clout, they’re the people who would be silently displaced by a Major Cultural Institution.

Anew public, institutional use, is coming into Jackson Park, but not only is it coming into a place where formal institutional uses have been predominant, it’s also, importantly, bounded by fairly wide streets, and buffered from free-use areas of the park by the lagoons on the east side of Cornell Drive. The increase in formal and informal surveillance of a public space that the Library will bring is contained.

Hyde Park High School will, I’m sure, get a new track and football field. More importantly, they’ll get a place to learn, volunteer, research—“to learn to love to learn” would be my hope. They, more than anyone else, are the big winners here.

And I don’t know if the Obamas read Mary Pattillo’s article or if they came to her viewpoint from their own observations, but it is clear that sympathy for the voiceless was weighed against potential economic benefits.

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