by Gabriel Piemonte
When I began these essays about the changes coming to the South Side, my focal point was the unnamed development corporation being organized to control building projects in Woodlawn, South Shore, and Washington Park. I continue to believe that this is a basic threat to our communities and that we will have a much harder time managing change if we let this entity come into being. Still, other issues have emerged that have more completely captured the public imagination, and they, too, deserve attention. The devastation that will be wreaked by the scope of the Tiger Woods Golf Course and the antics of local so-called leaders trying to get in front of the money and position afforded to anyone who is involved with this and other projects have demanded comment, and I have obliged.
These should not and cannot be seen as independent issues, however. Our ability to have a say in what takes place in our neighborhoods is at stake in the happenings around us, and we must answer the call of the moment. Great advantages could result from deep civic engagement at this juncture, and disenfranchisement is guaranteed if we sit idle.
From my view, there is no way to trust that the process as it stands will work for us. The process itself must be changed such that we have some measure of control over decisions related to the changes in Jackson Park, the Obama Center, and related development and building projects. And that control must be legally binding – advisory input is not enough.
As concerns about the Tiger Woods Golf Course, the Obama Center, the proposed amphitheater in Jackson Park, and other projects have emerged, some local residents have responded in the finest Chicago tradition and started making noise, activating their neighbors, and asserting their right to be heard. These ad-hoc efforts are essential; they are the ground game of all effective community empowerment. Given the scale and the implications of change in these circumstances, though, this is not enough.
All of the current crises – from the grotesque footprint of the golf course to the anonymous machinations of inside players to the shenanigans of local politicians – are fundamentally interrelated. Understanding the nature of this relationship will allow us to understand the way forward beyond putting out fires. Politicians put the people at arm’s length or ignore us altogether because of fear or ignorance regarding the value of collective deliberation. If the people were a real part of the decision-making process, better decisions would be made, but people with something to gain personally from this wave of South Side development do not trust us to advance their interests. We must demand a binding say in the decisions that are being made about these projects. We must have direct control in a way that is permanently built into the system.
For the Obamas and for Chicagoans who believe in their good intentions, the Obama Presidential Center is intended to spark a flame of civic engagement that will tear across the prairies of the Midwest and ignite the country. I am inspired by this vision. We desperately need it. But it will not come from a museum, no matter how well designed and creatively programmed. It will come from living, breathing engagement around the process of creating content – and well before that, creating the Center itself. And even this will not be enough, because if all of the other development sparked by the creation of the Center is done in the old Chicago Way, then democratic processes related to the Center will be an oddity and a novelty. Nothing real will change. The first test of whether the Center will have a meaningful impact on the country is whether its development has a real and empowering effect on the South Side. Money spent in building projects guarantees nothing. The projects could have nothing to do with the local economy and produce shoddy products. That, in fact, is the norm in our communities. Only community control over development decisions offers a chance of fulfilling the highest aspirations of the Obama Center. Only when we, the people, manage change in our communities will that change benefit us.
I am calling for local development councils – popularly elected, with legal authority, and one for every neighborhood impacted by the Obama Center effect. I repeat that these must be able to make legally binding decisions, and not be merely advisory in nature. And I am saying this is the only solution to the dangers we face in a moment when every South Side developer can throw an Obama sticker on a project and it almost seems unpatriotic to not let them gentrify and extract wealth from our communities.
No, no, no – we cannot let a moment of potential transformation be turned into a payday for predators. We have to stand up for our own future.