Obama Library gives West Siders reason for hope

North Lawndale Mother, daughter envision better neighborhood for the future

Grace Wotten has lived in North Lawndale for more than 50 years but almost left the West Side neighborhood. With crime increasing and businesses leaving, other neighbors did move out, Wotten, who lives near Polk Street and Cicero Avenue, recalled.
“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_Gill with Davis-min

Wotten stayed in North Lawndale, raising seven children, including oldest daughter Margaret Gill.
Mother and daughter, both lifelong West Siders, however, said 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, Wotten and Gill believes winning it would dramatically change the neighborhood for the better.

A decision by the Obama Foundation is coming later this month. Wotten and Gill joined other North Lawndale residents and politicians at a press conference Feb. 16, at United Missionary Baptist Church, 4242 W. Roosevelt. The proposed site sits across the street from the church between Kildare to Kostner and stretching north to West 5th Avenue.

The site is competing with proposals from the University of Chicago on the South Side and ones in Hawaii and New York. The Obama Foundation this week 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, whereas the city would have to buy park district land in order to build the library on the South Side near U of C, with Washington Park among the proposed locations.

The South Side proposal has gotten 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.
Both mother and daughter say that the West Side has been ignored and neglected for far too long.

“The children now sees that no one cares about us,” Wotten said. “If you never bring anything in to motivate them, if they don’t have anything to look forward to, they just die and the spirit die. To bring the library here, it will lift their morale.
“It will motivate them to want to do better, to want to get in nice places, to want to dress different, to want to act different,” Wotten said.

“But if people overlook you, you can’t do anything. Deep down in us, we know we’ve been overlooked, so this what makes the anger come out.”
Gill added, “In our youth, there’s a lot of talent here on the West Side, but because there’s nothing here to make them stand out, it makes it much harder to become that successful person. When they see different varieties of people coming in, who knows, that might be a blessing for the talent that’s out there.”

Wotten’s family is among the neighborhoods roughly 36,000 residents, according to 2010 Census data. But that’s a steep drop from the roughly 41,000 residents–a 14-percent decline–counted 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 in the end 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, adding that some of her neighbors did, moving to the suburbs or elsewhere.

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 a lasting impact.

“This is more closer to home, and I think by being more closer to home, it’s something to look forward to… to see the growth of the neighborhood and stuff that is coming up instead of just fading out. I wish more people would come and actually petition for this.”

North Lawndale residents Grace Wotten and her daughter Margaret Gill speaking with Cong. Danny Davis at Feb. 16, press conference at United Missionary Baptist Church, 4242 W. Roosevelt, supporting West Side bid for Obama library.