More than four years after stepping down, Barack Obama on Tuesday inaugurated his presidential center on the south side of Chicago, a landmark project that has been bogged down by long discord over his use of a public park and its potential impact on a historically neglected part of the city.
In an hour-long ceremony that has been cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Obama and Michelle Obama, the former first lady, scooped up soil with memorial shovels at the 19-acre site of Jackson Park, near the shores of Lake Michigan.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined the Obamas for the inauguration, which was broadcast online.
“That day has been a long time coming,” Mr. Obama said. “The pandemic had other plans, so we’re keeping this small for now. “
Mr. Obama, 60, a Democrat who stepped down in January 2017, said the presidential center would become a catalyst for job growth and economic development where he came of age as a politician, husband and father. The project, he said, would also turn Chicago’s south side into a destination not only for people to learn about his presidency, but for future leaders as well.
“Chicago is where I found the goal I was looking for,” said Obama, who in 2008 became the first black person elected to the US presidency.
Unlike similar projects recognizing past presidents, the center will not actually be a presidential library. It will not house Mr. Obama’s presidential papers, which will be scanned – a move that has been a sore point for some presidential observers. Mr. Obama envisioned that the center would host concerts, cultural events, conferences, trainings and summits.
“We want this center to be more than a static museum or an archival research source,” Obama said. “It won’t just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle’s ball gowns, although I know everyone will be coming to see them. It will not be just an exercise in nostalgia or looking back. We want to move forward.
Construction of the presidential center, whose estimated price has risen from initial projections of $ 500 million to $ 830 million, is expected to take four years.
President Biden, who was Mr. Obama’s vice president for eight years, did not attend the ceremony but offered his support in a pre-recorded message.
“It’s not just about innovating on a new building,” Biden said. “It’s an innovation on the very idea of America as a place of possibilities.”
The Obamas’ choice of Chicago for the presidential center reaffirmed the city’s seminal role in their political and personal life.
Mr. Obama taught law at the University of Chicago for 12 years before being elected to the United States Senate in 2004. It was in a Chicago law firm that he met his wife in 1989: she had was appointed to serve as his mentor. And the city is where the future first couple started their family.
Ms Obama, 57, said that although she had dined with heads of state, kings and queens, in addition to shaking hands with two popes, she had not forgotten her roots.
“One of my biggest honors is to be a proud Chicago girl from the South Side,” Ms. Obama said. “I still lead with this descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly like a crown.
But for all the goodwill the Obamas had amassed in Chicago, where Mr. Obama celebrated his 2008 presidential victory in front of an estimated 240,000 people in Grant Park, they were unable to avoid prolonged delays on the presidential center opening.
“It took a lot of twists and turns,” Ms. Lightfoot said of the project.
The choice of Jackson Park angered both preservation groups and some residents, who questioned whether the project would displace black residents from the neighborhood as gentrification took hold.
An advocacy group has unsuccessfully pursued use of the park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result of the designation, the project underwent a four-year review by the federal government which was not resolved until early this year.
In August, the United States Supreme Court rejected a request by opponents of the project to stop construction, the Chicago Tribune reported. Work began the same month, more than five years after the Obamas decided on the location of the center.
The wait for Mr. Obama to open his presidential center will prove to be considerably longer than those experienced by his predecessors.
Former President George W. Bush dedicated his Presidential Library in Dallas in April 2013, just over four years after leaving office, while former President Bill Clinton opened his Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock , Ark., In November 2004, less than four years after the end of his presidency.
Mr. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, said having the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago was a source of great pride.
“Which means,” he said, “we are now proudly known as the land of Lincoln and Obama”.