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Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:55:37 AM CST

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The only remaining piece of the Michael Reese Hospital, the historic Singer Pavillion, stands in the distance of the shuttered hospital campus. The main hospital building was torn down in 2011. Bronzeville advocates plan to submit a proposal for Obama's presidential library to be built here.

Bronzeville advocate says bid for presidential library is not a tug of war

by Stacia D. Smith
Mar 6, 2014


Stacia D. Smith/MEDILL

The lot at 29th and Ellis is where the Michael Reese Hospital once stood. Bronzeville community advocates hope President Obama's library will one day fill the space.

Bronzeville advocates say the neighborhood’s bid for Obama’s presidential library has more to do with heritage than competition with the University of Chicago as some local and national news outlets have painted it.

The White House announced in January that it was launching a foundation to develop Obama’s library, and shortly thereafter, news stories began to surface about a brewing war between some of the interested parties, like a Bronzeville community group and the University of Chicago.

But Paula Robinson, who’s involved with the Black Metropolis Heritage Area Commission's proposal process, said this isn’t the case.

“The media has really shaped this as ‘Oh, there’s a battle, there’s a story, whatever,” said Robinson, a managing partner with the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership. “The reality is that everybody certainly wants it to be in Chicago…we certainly feel that we have a compelling proposal for this particular site.”

Robinson said the pitch for Obama’s presidential library in Bronzeville fits into a larger community economic development strategy, which includes preserving historic Bronzeville and telling its “authentic story” to residents and visitors alike.

When various opportunities arise, Robinson said, the commission evaluates them based on its mission and decides whether to get involved.

Once people understand the process, she said, it is easier to see why Obama’s presidential library has been on their radar.

“Our heritage – in terms of history, politics, the whole concept of the road to the White House – is a part of our interpretive story and it’s a part of what we do in terms of saying, ‘well, why is the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area significant?’ ”

Meanwhile, the University of Chicago has tagged Susan Sher, first lady Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, to head its proposal process.

According to the White House, the foundation envisions a facility that will “become an anchor for economic development” and promote a strong relationship with its surrounding community.

The university said in a press release that it is committed to a collaborative partnership to bring the library to “one of the neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago.”

Bronzeville Community Organizer Harold Lucas has been outspoken about his skepticism of the school’s involvement with the library.

“It has always worked against the interest of the authentic community that surrounds it,” Lucas said, “and the 100-year history of the African American community that surrounds it.”

Lucas said he believes a proposal to place the library at the Michael Reese Hospital site at 29th and South Ellis would be the best economic decision for the city.

The hospital closed in 2008 and was purchased by the city as part of a failed bid to get the Olympics. Chicago-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill released a report last year suggesting an Obama library as one of the possible reuses for the 37-acre piece of land.

“That piece of lakefront real estate is sitting there underutilized; it’s already paid for,” said Lucas, the executive director of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center.

Robinson said although she couldn’t divulge too much about the commission’s proposal plan, it will involve partnerships with groups on an international scale.

“It’s a proposal that we would see being certainly collaborative,” Robinson said, “but we think that the site is certainly the best and strongest.”

Robinson said during the process of putting together Bronzeville’s “compelling story,” she has become more convinced that the former site of the hospital is the right place for Obama’s presidential library and museum.

“The ideas that Michael Reese had, in terms of this being the physical grounds that we’re talking about, it is everything that Obamacare is today,” Robinson said, “So that’s what speaks to me, that’s how I know the ancestors are going, ‘don’t make this a fight, make it right.’ ”

According to the White House, the foundation will first release a request for qualifications to solicit interest and detail criteria for the site. In May, it will release a request for proposals. The foundation expects to select a site early next year.

Robinson said until request for qualifications is released, the commission is going to stay focused on its overall objectives in the neighborhood and stay true to the “authentic experience” of Bronzeville.

“The land is what is speaking to us,” she said. “The land is really our blueprint.”