. . . we want more economic activity in this community, because that’s what creates opportunity and with more economic opportunity it does mean that there’s going to be more demand for all kinds of amenities in the community. So you can’t have one without the other. You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses and more opportunity for our kids but otherwise we want everything to stay exactly the same. It just doesn’t work that way. But what we do is make sure that we’re working with organizations and institutions in the community to preserve affordable housing, to make sure that it is residents that are benefiting.
On February 27, former President Barack Obama appeared at a community forum in Chicago to answer public questions about the proposed Presidential Center to be built in Jackson Park. One part of the conversation dealt with gentrification. You can watch the President’s answer here. We’ve also transcribed his remarks for your reference.
Questioner: President Obama, I have a question how is the presidential center working to revitalize the South side without pushing out existing residents like myself.
Well, you know this is really an important issue. Some people have asked, by the way, why did we locate on a park? Part of the reason is, as I described earlier, when you look at the most vibrant parks in the world, whether it’s Central Park in New York, or Grant Park downtown or Lincoln Park , or Luxembourg Park in Paris, what characterizes great parks is activity and life and movement and people being around and people being outside and stuff going on.
Which isn’t to say you don’t want quiet spaces, contemplative spaces.
It’s a lived-in place. It’s not behind a glass case to look at. It’s something to be in—that’s the point.
But one of the things that we were also committed to is making sure that we weren’t displacing residents in the construction of the actual facility and we will not be.
Now, the issue that then gets raised is “Okay, that’s true but isn’t it true that once this gets built and all these visitors are coming and everybody sees how pretty Jackson Park is and how nice the lakefront is, won’t more people want to live down here.” And there is constantly a balance we’ve got to strike between making sure that existing residents are benefiting from increased economic development, benefitting from increases in home values and benefiting from more businesses being active and all that revenue, because that creates more wealth and more jobs and so forth,
We have to balance that with the fact that we want more economic activity in this community, because that’s what creates opportunity and with more economic opportunity it does mean that there’s going to be more demand for all kinds of amenities in the community. So you can’t have one without the other. You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses and more opportunity for our kids but otherwise we want everything to stay exactly the same. It just doesn’t work that way. But what we do is make sure that we’re working with organizations and institutions in the community to preserve affordable housing, to make sure that it is residents that are benefiting. Those are the kinds of plans, activities, foresight that we have to have in order to get that perfect balance: revitalizing and renewing the community but also making sure that people who are already living there are benefiting from it.
I know that I heard a couple of people concerned about like, maybe rents might go up. Well, here’s the thing. If you go into some neighborhoods in Chicago where there are no jobs, no businesses and nothing’s going on, in some cases, the rents are pretty cheap, but our kids are also getting shot on that block. So what I want to do is make sure that people have jobs, kids have opportunity, the schools have a better tax base and if the rent goes up a little bit, people can pay it because they’ve got more money. And if they’re seniors, if they’re on fixed incomes, if they’re disabled, then we’ve got to make sure that there’s a process in place to encourage and plan for affordable housing units being constructed there.
But here’s the one thing I will say: I think a lot of times people get nervous about gentrification, and understandably so. But what I will also say is this: I first came to Chicago in 1985, and was on the South Side for – just doing the math real quick – twenty-some years, before moving to Washington because of the presidency. It is not my experience during that time that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced because all these folks from Lincoln Park pouring into the South Side. That’s not what’s happened. I mean, it’s happened in some places along, you know, near like West Loop area; most of that has happened right around the city. There is so much room. Think about all the abandoned buildings and the vacant lots that are around here. We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to start seeing the prospect of significant gentrification. Malia’s kids might have to worry about that. Right now, what we’ve got to worry about is you have broken curbs, and trash and boarded up buildings, and that’s really what we need to work on.