Obama library gives West Siders hope

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Grace Wotten has lived in North Lawndale for more than 50 years, but she almost left the West Side neighborhood.

With crime increasing and businesses leaving, other neighbors did move out, said Wotten, who lives near Polk Street and Cicero Avenue.

“I could have moved away because that’s what happened with lots of my neighbors. They saw the neighborhood when we first moved over here, but we saw the deterioration of the neighborhood.”

Wotten stayed in North Lawndale, raising seven children, including oldest daughter Margaret Gill.

Mother and daughter, both lifelong West Siders, say the neighborhood has long been neglected by the rest of the city. With North Lawndale in the running to land President Barack Obama’s library and museum, they believe winning it would dramatically change the neighborhood for the better.

Supporters may still sign a petition supporting the West Side bid.

A decision by the Obama Foundation is coming soon, slated for later this month.

Wotten and Gill joined other North Lawndale residents and politicians Feb. 16 at United Missionary Baptist Church, 4242 W. Roosevelt Road.

The proposed site, sponsored by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the North Lawndale community, sits across the street from the church and would be bounded by Roosevelt Road and Kostner, Kildare and 5th avenues.

The site is competing with proposals from the University of Chicago on the South Side as well as Hawaii and New York. The Obama Foundation recently commissioned a poll asking South Side residents if they supported building the library on park district land.

Opponents of building on city parks, meanwhile, remain steadfast against that idea.

The city-owned North Lawndale site is currently vacant, while the city would have to buy park district land to build the library on the South Side near U of C, with Washington Park among the proposed locations.

The South Side proposal has received much media attention, but West Side supporters like Gill aren’t counting out their site, which is currently backed by the grassroots North Lawndale-UIC Presidential Library Committee.

“I’m very excited about this, and I’m looking forward to us actually being a winner, and I pray it does happen for the West Side,” Gill said.

The library will bring jobs and much-needed focus back to the West Side, she and her mom said.

“I think this would be a good prospect for the area because it would bring in new businesses, and it also would bring people to venture in and see exactly how the West Side is doing,” Gill said.

West Side youth, she added, would likely benefit the most.

“The West Side is more than just old car lots and liquor stores. Give the young people something to come to. Maybe they’ll come off the street. It’ll make it better because they don’t really have a lot of recreational things to do around here; it’s very limited. And then with the closing of the schools that’s going on, that really ostracized them.”

Wotten agreed.

“We have enough land to support the library; we have much space. And it’s definitely needed over here because it seems like everybody has turned a deaf ear to the West Side,” she said.

The North Lawndale site is located in a mostly industrial part of the neighborhood, with no commercial or recreational development in the surrounding area for adults or youth.

Wotten’s family is among the neighborhood’s roughly 36,000 residents, according to 2010 Census data. That’s down from the roughly 41,000 residents – a 14-percent drop – in the 2000 Census. North Lawndale’s population has steadily declined since its peak of 125,000 in the 1960s.

Wotten had more than enough reason to leave. She lost two sons to violence, one shot in the street while he came home from work and another beaten to death during a robbery. She was set to return to her native Mississippi but decided to stay in Chicago.

“I though about it several times,” Wotten said. “I even went and picked out a house but changed my mind. I got so disgusted with the city and how it was going. I went there and picked out the house and everything, and then I came back here and I said, ‘Oh, gosh, I can’t abandon Chicago,” she said.

Gill said her family decided to stick it out, and though some development has occurred in North Lawndale in recent years, she thinks the Obama library would have lasting impact.

“I wish more people would come and actually petition for this.”


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