Discover more from The Zero Hour Report: A Newsletter from Richard (RJ) Eskow
American Ozymandias: Part 1, The Obama Center in Chicago
Many people remember Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias from their student days. Others discovered it in the Breaking Bad episode of the same name. The famously anti-imperialist work tells the story of a broken ruin, all that remains of a vanished empire. Ozymandias, the king who built this tribute to himself, speaks to passersby in an inscription: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” The point, of course, is that his works have vanished with time. A nameless traveler describes the scene:
“Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The Quran is filled with stories of vanished tribes like that of ‘Ad, and of abandoned cities like the archaeological marvel of Thamud. The memories of these ghost civilizations haunted the Arabian desert, where the last buildings of a dying empire become elegies in stone to what was lost, and to the hubris that told the builders it would last forever.
In Chicago, something that resembles a glass-and-stone temple is about to displace much of the local community, at an expected price tag of $1.6 billion. But the Obama Presidential Center isn’t a temple. It’s more like a tomb – not for the ex-president, but for the dreams and hopes of the millions who voted for him. The main building’s vaguely sarcophagus-like shape is reminiscent of pharaonic burial sites, which were also built by their rulers as a tribute to their own greatness.
The Obama Foundation has insisted on keeping control of the project in private hands, rather than with the National Archives. That might have been expected from a president fond of “public/private partnerships.” It’s also something historian Julian Zelizer, a fan of the project, calls “a break with tradition” which “could create problems with regard to what is and what is not presented to people who want to learn about these years.”
Like the military adventures that defined Obama’s and all modern presidencies, the Obama Center has been plagued with cost overruns. But the elites of this empire have stepped up to foot the bill. More than 100 of them have contributed more than $1 million to the project, including Bill and Melinda Gates; hedge funder Ken Griffin; George Soros’ Open Society Foundation; Michael Jordan; and the Obamas themselves.
The corporate world is doing its part, too. Major donors include BMO Financial Group, CME Group Foundation, Google, and Motorola. Mega-donors, with donations in the $3 million-$10 million range, include Prudential Financial, McDonald’s and Walgreens.
Most of the anticipated $1.6 billion will be directed toward building the center, with an additional $320 million for “global programming” and $470 million for center operations and activities. $90 million has been allocated to cover “the cost to collect artifacts, design exhibits and prepare the OPC to operate at opening.”
Presidents must now govern the country with an eye to fundraising, especially if they want to outdo their predecessors in grandeur.
The Obama Presidential Center is being built in Chicago’s Jackson Park, home of the Chicago 1893 “World’s Columbia Exposition,” also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. That event was a celebration of the new American empire, with its mighty engines and miracles of electricity. It was timed to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, a representative of an earlier empire. And its architecture evoked the ruins of imperial Greece.
As an anonymous online author notes, “Many prominent civic, professional, and commercial leaders from around the United States participated in the financing, coordination, and management of the Fair, including Chicago shoe company owner Charles H. Schwab, Chicago railroad and manufacturing magnate John Whitfield Bunn, and Connecticut banking, insurance, and iron products magnate Milo Barnum Richardson, among many others.”
Plus ça change ...
The Obama Foundation insists the center will benefit the local community, and it’s true that its annual report for 2020 lists a total of five grants for Chicago area organizations. Those grants totaled $303,000. The salaries of the foundation’s top five staffers came to $2,361,092 for the same year.
That’s not to say the project isn’t bringing wealth to Chicago. It is, at least for real estate investors. Premium Builders is building a project called “Presidential Square,” for example, a development of 34 new townhouses eight blocks from the Obama facility. They are four-bedroom homes of approximately 3,200 square feet each, with rooftop decks and three full baths.
The City of Chicago, whose mayor has expressed concerns about gentrification, gave the Obama Center its land for free and sold the land for these rather soulless looking townhomes to Premium Builders for $175,000.
Two of the Presidential Square townhouses are listed on Redfin.com for $659,000 each – this, in a neighborhood where the average townhome or condo sold for $235,000 in the first nine months of this year.
Gentrification? For those very few locals who can come up with a $131,000 down payment, the monthly cost for a Presidential Square townhouse amounts to $3,976 – for mortgage payments, housing association fees, and property taxes.
That’s $47,712 per year, in a community where the median household income in 2018 was $26,415.
Barack Obama is far too accomplished a rhetorician to appear completely vain about the project. His speeches about the center are filled with language about real people and why they matter. “20 years from now, 30 years from now, I want young people all across the South Side of Chicago, all across Chicago, all across America, to be able to look at this Center and say, ‘This is a sign I count. And this is a sign that I can change the world.’”
The final words are left unsaid: “Like Obama did.” But Barack Obama did not change the world. He accommodated to it, and to the powerful people and forces that rule it. He didn’t want to overthrow or even reform the old order. He just wanted to join it, and to be anointed as this center will anoint him. The millions of young people inspired by his 2008 candidacy are extras in the story of his life.
The Obama Museum will be decorated with words from Obama’s 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It seems right to celebrate the election of the first Black president by evoking the civil rights struggle that made it possible. But it is not the heroes of Selma who will be honored there so much as Obama himself. The words on the wall will be Obama’s, not those of the great figures who risked their lives on that march.
Obama’s quote begins, “You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention.” This is history rewritten as narcissism, a history that views the past as a burden rather than as a source of liberation. The heroes of Selma were challenging the habit and convention of their day, but they were also channeling — and “constraining themselves” with — an older habit: that of love and sacrifice. Obama looked into the well of history and saw only his reflection, not the deep waters beneath the shimmering light.
The fastidious Obama tries to deflect from the naked vanity of the exercise by adding these sentences: “America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’” But even here, the individualistic ego shines through in the self-quote, whose graven letters will tower over the tiny humans beneath them.
Look on my words, ye mighty, and despair.
The buildings we erect don’t just house us. They shape our society, just as they are shaped by it. Barack Obama reflects his times and the forces that control them. The center will no doubt host some interesting events, but the message is clear: this is ‘me’ architecture, not ‘we’ architecture. The center will celebrate the individual, not the collective, and it will teach young people that the way to achieve celebration yourself is by serving the system as it currently exists. But it is a system that can’t survive for long. The young people of this country should prepare themselves to help build the world that will follow it.
Still, this building will be built. And as the former president’s words wrap themselves around that structure in Jackson Park, the promises of the past will be carried away in the breezes off Lake Michigan, circling the world before coming to rest in the sands of Thamud and ‘Ad.
 “Corporate Chicago chips in for Obama Presidential Center,” Crain’s Chicago Business (paywalled)
 “Obama Foundation reveals $830M needed to build, operate Obama Center in first year,” Chicago Sun Times, October 2021