by Gabriel Piemonte

Some people get a kick out of besmirching others in public. Still others like to throw a rock and hide their hand, starting rumors that are hurtful but avoiding association with those rumors. These people add chaos to public discourse; they do not further reasoned exchange.

Recent events have led me to speak directly to actions that I have found objectionable on the part of specific South Side leaders. I am not going to rehash those events or restate my criticisms. I am going to explain why I felt the need to not merely speak in generalisations or leave it to the whispering network of South Siders to get the word out that something was amiss.

First, I want to point out that I was editor of the Hyde Park Herald for eight years, and I never used that platform to promote myself or a personal agenda. I stood behind every editorial; I fought hard for my positions. But I neither exploited personal foibles nor passed the buck. I owned up to everything on the pages of the paper while my name was on the masthead. I am saying this simply to make a case that I do not have a history of flying off the handle at people or casting aspersions. Search the archives for articles about people I have recently criticized. You will find balanced news and, where it was appropriate, praise.

I am speaking out because I am concerned. We are witnessing a crisis of leadership on a scale that is unprecedented in my 17-plus years of living on the South Side. The people we could rely on in the past to take at least a somewhat nuanced position all seem to be either lining up behind the money or unequal to the task of bringing the people’s voice and interests to the forefront. And even the people we have heard criticize those leaders in the past seem to have fallen silent.

If you are reading this, you know why circumstances have changed. This moment in time is absolutely unique for the South Side. The Obama Presidential Center is sadly bringing out the worst in many people, even as it aspires to inspire the best. Jackson Park is being turned into an overbuilt Disneyland by the lake. Local politicians are behaving badly, even beyond the normal accepted parameters of bad behavior. And even local advocates seem to be dreaming of paydays, or at least cowed by the enormity of the moment and the forces involved.

We have only one recourse: The people must demand a binding, decision-making vote in every development. I do not mean by proxy; I do not mean a chance to register one’s views. I mean we need to have the power to say no. We need to have the power to say no to the individual developments that are already rolling out, each one attempting to put an Obama sticker across the front page of their blueprints, and the ones to come. We need to have the power to say no to the projects in Jackson Park. And yes, we need to have the power to say no to the Obama Presidential Center – this, perhaps, above all, because if the Obamas are not willing to give the people the power to shape their center, then the claims of it being a participatory institution are hollow, merely symbolic.

I hold out hope for this last possibility above all, because I believe that there is a thread in the reasoning behind the Obama Center that truly is about the people. But we cannot stop there, even if we gain that influence. We must be able to shape our communities, and all of the forces mentioned above are impacting us, in aggregate, most profoundly.

We cannot look forward to so-called leaders of any stripe to do this for us. Barack Obama said it best – we are the ones we have been waiting for. This statement of faith, which has echoed across generations, appeared much earlier in a poem by June Jordan, which commemorated the 1956 Women’s March, where 40,000 women and children literally put their bodies on the line in protest of Apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps we can gain some inspiration to act in the recollection that our fight for the right to make our own decisions and control the land beneath our feet resonates in powerful ways everywhere.

(All photos are of Jackson Park and are courtesy of the Cultural Landscape Foundation)