Jackson Park is an emerald gem on the South Side of Chicago. It’s also at the heart of two different conversations around how best to use and protect public space. The conversations, which often display racial divisions, have intensified recently as the proposed Obama Presidential Center winds its way through the approval process.
In the past couple of weeks, plans for the center to be constructed in Jackson Park cleared more hurdles: the center got wide approval from the Chicago City Council; that followed approval from city planners. But the debate included intense concerns around how to use and protect park land.
For many black South Siders, the chance to honor the country’s first black president also presents opportunity to bring economic development to nearby communities that have long faced a lack of resources and investment. For vocal preservationists, many of whom are white, protecting public land from private development is key.
“Many of the preservationists are older and white, and what it means to have public space and public parks means something completely different than how many black people may see it,” said South Shore resident and activist Anton Seals. “There’s a racial component that’s embedded in there that we don’t want to talk about.”
As the approval process moved toward city hall earlier this month, a local group called Protect Our Parks Inc. filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the park district to stop the transfer of public park land to the private Obama Foundation. The city has not filed a response to that lawsuit.
The group formed in 2007 to stop the city from transferring land from Lincoln Park to the Latin School of Chicago for a soccer field.
Herb Caplan is president of Protect Our Parks Inc. and said people are using race to discredit his organization.
“If there’s any racial element involved, it’s the idea that you can take this public resource and amenity away from poor primarily black underprivileged people on the South Side, and nobody says a word about it,” he said.
Scenic Jackson Park is one of the city’s largest — a mix of nature, recreation, and culture. Black people use it quite a bit with summer barbeques, an annual house music festival, and reunions.
Hyde Parker Mary Anton said that’s lost on too many of her fellow white neighbors.
“White Hyde Parkers think of the Museum of Science of Industry, wooded island, and maybe the boat slip. Quite honestly, I don’t think a lot of people have the full understanding of either the length of the park or the demographic users of the park,” Anton said.
An irony in the fight over the future of Jackson Park is who it’s named after. Andrew Jackson was also a former president. And a slave owner.