A biting wind blew off the lake. A group of Southeast Side residents pulled their coats tight and gazed north to the downtown skyline. On this raw March day, they stood on the northern edge of the former site of U.S. Steel’s South Works mill. The plant closed in 1992, and now all you see is rubble, weeds and mud.
But LaMeise Turner and her neighbors envision a glorious future for this spot. "I would love to see the Obama library here," Turner said. "I think that would be good, it would give access not just to the neighborhood but to everybody. Because he’s the first African American president, the first one from Chicago, so I think this is an ideal place for it."
It’s right on the lake and the view is spectacular. Fertile mud from the Illinois River was trucked in to grow native plants and flowers. And if developers have their way, these hundreds of acres will be home to a glistening new neighborhood with tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
Dan McCaffery, the developer spearheading the project known as Lakeside, said the Obama library would bolster this development and help revitalize the whole area. McCaffery said, "I noticed in Time magazine September 2008, one quote of his is: 'I found my calling to public service in a community devastated by the loss of steel workers.' So I think this would be a very nice way for him to put his imprint permanently in that community. We have a gorgeous site, sits on the lake, looks back at the city. So Dan McCaffery thinks Mr. President, you ought to be there."
There are 13 official presidential libraries spread across the country. President Obama won’t formally make the decision about his library until he’s out of office. But the courtship has already begun.
There’s no guarantee Obama’s library will be in Chicago; the University of Hawaii is mulling a bid.
But the top contender appears to be the University of Chicago. Obama was on the law school faculty there for years, and Michelle Obama held administrative positions too. A university spokesman said it is “premature” to comment, but many people think it’s a done deal.
This upsets Harold Lucas, who knew Obama in his days as a community organizer. Lucas said, "I remember when he came to Chicago with his big ears sitting off his head, little bitty skinny guy. We went out to the Gardens. That’s where I met him."
Lucas is president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council in Bronzevile. He’d like the library to go on the site of the old Michael Reese Hospital. "Knowing that Bronzeville began in 1916, we want to celebrate our centennial in 2016; the cherry on the sundae would be the presidential library," Lucas said.
Then there are at least two other Chicago candidates for the library. Like the U.S. Steel site, they are on the Far South Side where Obama cut his teeth in community organizing.
Chicago State University has enlisted former State Senate President Emil Jones to lure the library to its campus.
Others are pushing the historic Pullman neighborhood, near the Altgeld Gardens public housing complex. Tom Shepherd and other local history buffs have been trying for years to create a railroad museum in the old Pullman rail car factory.
"The University of Chicago, they already have so many resources," Shepherd said. "I’m sure they’re going to make a big push for it, but I just feel that by bringing some of the university resources out to a neighborhood like Pullman would help Pullman, help Roseland, the neighboring communities that are really troubled right now."
Ed Gardner, 88, is founder of Soft Sheen products and a long-time proponent of African American empowerment and economic development.
He’s been a major Obama supporter and donor. He’s also a big backer of Lakeside Development on the U.S. Steel site, and he thinks the Obama library would be the crowning touch.
"Downtown or even the University of Chicago, they have their pluses," Gardner said. "But President Obama came from the people, and they’re the ones who put him into office, who worked these streets on the South Side of Chicago and all of the state of Illinois and the whole country. He would want the world to come through this part of the city on their way to see the library."
Chicagoans like Ed Gardner still feel a strong connection to the president. Just as Obama started his career trying to help Chicago communities, now the decision about the library could go a long way toward revitalizing the South Side.