CHICAGO » People who live in Chicago know a few things to be true about their city. Winters are brutal. The architecture is first-rate. The Cubs will lose.
In the last few years, they have confidently added another: The Barack Obama Presidential Library will be built here, Obama’s adopted hometown.
But as the Obamas and their foundation near a decision on the location of the library – after narrowing the options down to Hawaii, Chicago and New York City – someone in their camp recently let it slip that they are not so pleased with Chicago’s bids.
A person close to the Barack Obama Foundation, which is overseeing plans for the library, anonymously told local reporters last month that foundation officials had "major concerns" with proposals from the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Foundation officials were said to be alarmed that the University of Chicago does not yet control the land where the university wants to build the library.
To the shock and horror of residents here, that left Columbia University in New York, where Obama received his undergraduate degree, as the apparent front-runner. And suddenly a fait accompli has become an open question.
"Can you imagine if he chose to go to New York?" John J. Cullerton, the president of the Illinois Senate, said in an interview. "The president probably wouldn’t be spending a lot of time in Illinois after that. He probably wouldn’t even want to fly into O’Hare."
Some people suggested that the anonymous whispers over Chicago’s troubles were nothing more than behind-the-scenes maneuvering to push the university to acquire the land. But it has not stopped the debate over the library from reaching a fever pitch.
Joyce Robinson, one of thousands of people who crowded into public hearings last week to comment on proposed sites on the South Side, recoiled at the mention of Columbia’s bid.
"You just hurt me when you said that," she said, adding that she was a strong supporter of Obama. "For real. I would feel so bad. I’m kind of tearing up here thinking about it."
The University of Chicago has suggested two possible locations: within Washington Park, a 380-acre space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, where surrounding neighborhoods could use the economic boost a sparkling new library would bring. The second location, Jackson Park, on the South Side lakefront, has considerable support. The University of Illinois at Chicago, on the near West Side, has offered a separate space.
Regardless of which location they prefer, nearly everyone here who is following the issue is aghast at the prospect of an Obama library anywhere else, particularly New York, Chicago’s bjte noire.
"Chicago always has that second-city challenge when it comes to New York," said Wallace E. Goode, the executive director of Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce. "But we are the strongest competitor."
Torrey Barrett, executive pastor at Life Center Church of God in Christ here, took the microphone at a hearing Wednesday.
"I’m going to keep it real," he said. "It would be a slap in the face if any city other than the city of Chicago receives this endorsement. It’s time that the president show the support to us that we’ve shown to him since before he got in office."
Many people in Chicago still consider the Obamas their own. They share stories of knowing the couple when they lived and worked on the South Side, taking their daughters to dance classes and soccer practice. Cars that zip down Lake Shore Drive are still adorned with faded Obama bumper stickers. When prompted, Chicagoans are prepared with long lists of reasons the Obamas must bring the library to their city.
After all, Chicago was where Obama met his wife, Michelle, a South Sider born and raised. It was Chicago where he worked as a community organizer and was elected to the U.S. Senate. The Obama family still owns a stately Georgian Revival mansion in the Kenwood neighborhood. Both Obamas worked for the University of Chicago. A circle of close Obama pals remains here, including Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, who happens to be the mayor.
"The Obama Library belongs in Chicago – and it will be another significant cultural, educational and economic boost for our city," Emanuel said in an email. "I remain committed to bringing the library to Chicago, and we continue to work with the foundation to ensure the city’s bids remain competitive."
David Axelrod, a close friend and former top adviser to Obama, called the possibility of the library’s going to New York "an unthinkable prospect" to most Chicagoans.
Axelrod, who grew up in New York but has lived in Chicago most of his adult life, and who in 2013 established the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, did not say with certainty which city Obama would choose.
"He has warm feelings for his hometown here," Axelrod said. "Whenever I see him, he asks about Chicago. And I know he follows this city closely, so those roots are firmly implanted."
Columbia University has proposed a space for the library somewhere on a 17-acre site it already owns on its Manhattanville campus.
The foundation, led by Obama’s close friend Martin Nesbitt, has kept its discussions quiet. It is expected to make its decision this spring.
Susan Sher, the University of Chicago official who is leading the school’s bid for the library, was formerly chief of staff for Michelle Obama at the White House. She said the university was not discounting the challenge from New York.
"I think it’s a very serious competition," she said, adding that when she talked to people in the community, "they cannot imagine the Obamas not choosing the South Side of Chicago."
Some people have dismissed the idea that the Chicago bid is in any kind of trouble. Writing in Crain’s Chicago Business, Greg Hinz suggested that the leaked concerns from the foundation over Chicago’s bid were a "brushback pitch" intended to get city officials in line.
But at least one local elected official is already looking for a place to lay blame if New York wins out.
"I think it would be Rahm’s fault if Chicago loses the library," said Bob Fioretti, an alderman who is challenging Emanuel in his re-election bid in February. "No doubt about it."
Fioretti said Chicago’s inability to rally around a single bid, as New York has done, had hurt its chances – an opinion shared by some people who watched the public hearings in the city last week.
Robert D. Blackwell Sr., the president and chief executive of the DuSable Museum of African American History, warned that if Chicagoans kept fighting among themselves, the library could slip away.
"New York City has the land," he said. "New York City has the money. And if we aren’t careful, we’re going to be sitting around here and New York City will win this thing. And now my question is, how many of you would be happy if New York City won?"