We interviewed folks at a recent community meeting, hoping to gauge how constituents feel about City Council and the Black Caucus.

Obama CBA meeting at St. Philip Neri Elementary School (Photo: Charles Preston)

It’s always surprising when folks show up for something of a civics lesson after work.

On a balmy Wednesday in August, the crowd at St. Philip Neri Elementary School looked thin just minutes before 6 p.m., the start time for a community meeting about sustainability and transportation around the planned Obama Foundation library and golf course in South Shore.

But just on cue, people flocked in, dutifully took fliers at the door, and filled the rows of tables and metal folding chairs in the cavernous gym.

For City Bureau, we have spent the past several weeks working on a project about City Council, specifically examining the actions of the 18-member aldermanic Black Caucus after the video of Laquan McDonald was released in November 2015. As the city has sought to address issues affecting African American communities — a soaring crime rate, an exodus of residents from many African American communities and a loss of trust in the mayor and politics in general — we wanted to see how politicians had responded by taking a closer look at the caucus’s actions. We also wanted to find out what happened behind the scenes during this period of political turmoil, talking to politicos and aldermen about their roles and why proposals for stricter, more community-oriented police accountability legislation had failed.

And while we’ve had some success exploring some data and talking to political players — stay tuned for the results — we hadn’t yet had a chance to talk to regular folks, voters and would-be voters, about some of the basics: What did they think of City Council? How did they feel about their aldermen? In the political doldrums of August, the one month without a City Council meeting, political activity tends to take a pause before school starts. The Obama Foundation meeting on August 16 seemed like a rare chance to chat with people about some of these issues.

One of the first people who bounded into the meeting was Paula Robinson, who murmured something about the heat — a fan in the back of the room seemed to simply stir the humidity — before finding a spot to sit. Before we could ask about her feelings on City Council and the Black Caucus, she wanted to discuss the Obama library. (The reason for the meeting, more specifically, was to talk about the environmental sustainability of the project, transportation concerns, and ensuring that the project would bring jobs to nearby residents.) Robinson is a community developer and a member of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, and she believes developers should work more closely with communities.

“The city should say to any developer … that they are going to need to support these community plans, community visions,” she said.

Juanita Irizarry, the executive director of Friends of the Park, which is pushing for the preservation of park land, wondered aloud into the microphone as part of a group of panelists: “Is this just a done deal? Is this planning process just a charade?” Several other attendees expressed similar skepticism—especially since Obama Foundation officials were not present to answer any questions, though organizers said they had been to previous meetings. (Incidentally, the Sun-Times enshrined this angle with a cover headline: “Obama library details: Shhhhhhhh!”)

Thomas Petty, a 21-year-old who said he was there to make sure locals get jobs that come along with building and maintaining the library, said it didn’t occur to him to go to City Council for answers or leadership. “It depends on us,” he said. Other attendees said they were worried the development would eventually price long-time residents out of the area.

The organizers of the meeting, including Anton Seals, with Grow Greater Englewood, have pushed for a Community Benefits Agreement, a legal document that would bind the city to certain goals proposed by a coalition of community groups. Seals said he believes the city isn’t sharing its intentions with the public about the Obama library, and he’s not expecting much help from City Council.

“A plan is done and they’re not being really open about it,” Seales said. They’re all Obama-ites. [City Council] is not going to challenge Barack. And they don’t challenge Rahm.”

The Chicago Reader reported in July that Obama’s library plans are indeed on the fast track and that officials do not intend to sign a Community Benefits Agreement. This, despite foundation officials releasing a statement last year to CBS, saying that they agree with locals’ goals: “Our efforts are focused not only on ensuring that residents aren’t displaced, but that they feel the economic benefits of the project.”

Jeanette Taylor, an organizer with the advocacy group Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), bolted from the meeting early—she wasn’t the only one to leave in frustration. “When have they ever stood up?” she said of City Council.

Robinson, for her part, is more hopeful about the library’s prospects for partnering with the community.

“We have a 99-year eclipse [coming],” she said. “All things are possible.”

It’s good to be reminded that the state of politics is in the eye of the beholder.