Obama Heads Home to Chicago to Say His Final Farewell as President

People wait in line Saturday for tickets to President Obama's final scheduled speech on Tuesday. (Chris Sweda/chicago Tribune via AP)
People wait in line Saturday for tickets to President Obama’s final scheduled speech on Tuesday. (Chris Sweda/chicago Tribune via AP)

President Obama has referred to his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood here as “a time capsule,” a mostly uninhabited place full of old bills and news clippings dating back to a time before he took office.

Nearby, in Jackson Park, is the site of his future presidential center, a place that currently carries a stronger imprint of the 1893 World’s Fair held there than the expansive, modern presidential center that will open in a few years.

For Obama, this city remains a potent mix of his past and his future, and on Tuesday he will return to lay down a critical mile marker of his presidency, seeking to address both the past and the future. The president will make his final case for why the change he promised in 2008 is a reality that will continue to unfold despite the battering his party suffered in the November elections.

Here in Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to open in 2021, residents see it as providing a critical economic boost. Tonya Hall, a home health-care aide, noted approvingly: “We saw them cutting down all the trees,” a concrete sign in her mind that the library will become a reality.

“I think it will be jobs,” said 77-year-old Almeda Nelson on Monday, as she ran errands across from the Good Shepherd Manor seniors’ home where she lives. She hopes the Obama library will help create opportunities for the neighborhood’s young people: “It will give them something to do. They don’t have nothing to do. They’re out in the street.”

Obama chose to go to Chicago to deliver his farewell-to-the-nation speech because of his “deep and profound love for the city,” said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and that profound love also explains the reason he chose to locate his presidential library here.

But the city also highlights some of the unfinished work of his presidency. Racked by gun violence, armed confrontations between police and civilians, and fights between city officials and the teachers’ union, Chicago is held up by conservatives as a national symbol of urban dysfunction. The city had 762 homicides last year, the highest number since the crack epidemic of the 1990s.

“We are experiencing, obviously, a serious murder and crime problem,” said Dick Simpson, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But Simpson, who served as a city alderman from 1971 to 1979, noted that Chicago “has become more established as a global city,” and the Obama center will reflect that growing sophistication.

“It’s not your grandfather’s presidential library, at least as it’s designed,” Simpson said.

In an interview Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted that the number of tourists visiting his city each year has risen from 39 million when he took office in 2011 to 54 million in 2016. Given Chicago’s easy accessibility and the draw of the presidential center, Emanuel said, “his library will be a major part of the cultural attraction of Chicago.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin