The Obamas Recall Lessons in Love and Politics at Presidential Center Groundbreaking in Chicago

"It won't just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle's ball gowns, although I know everybody will come to see those," the former president joked. "It won't just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward"

Barack Obama Presidential Center

Chicago will soon have a new museum — as well as a park, a tower with a viewing platform, an athletic facility, a fruit and vegetable garden, a playground, a branch of the city's public library and much more.

Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground Tuesday at the site of the Obama Presidential Center in the historic Jackson Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side to launch the $500 million construction project to build a sprawling campus and expand their legacy of public service.

"This day has been a long time coming," President Obama, 60, said at the start of his speech. "We had originally planned to hold a bigger, more festive event, but the pandemic had other plans."

After Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot both praised the Obamas for their vision to build a world-class institution that, they said, would bring jobs and prestige to the area and its communities, the former first lady took the stage.

"We are thrilled to be back in the city that we call home," said Mrs. Obama, 57. "One of my great honors is being a proud Chicagoan, a daughter of the South Side. I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly like a crown."

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Barack Obama at a groundbreaking for his presidential center in Chicago. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/getty

She described the neighborhood where she grew up as "a very special place" where she learned the lessons that "shape my values and guide my actions every single day."

Building the center there is a way "to give back something big and important and meaningful to the community that has given us so much," she said. "The OPC will be a place where folks can find work, where kids can learn and grow and envision better lives for themselves, where everyone can find home, beauty, peace and safety."

Her husband, who worked as a community organizer in Chicago early in his career, also said he also owes a debt of gratitude to the city and the communities that surround the site.

The nearby neighborhoods, he said, are "where I put my ideas about democracy and social change to the test. Chicago is where I found the purpose I was seeking."

"Most important," he continued, "it's where I met the brilliant and beautiful daughter of the South Side of Chicago, Michelle Lavaughn Robinson."

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From left: Barack, Sasha, Malia and Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama Twitter

The Obamas were married there and their daughters, Malia, now 23, and 20-year-old Sasha, were born "right down the street," Barack said, pointing from the podium.

He described in his speech valuable experience gained through grassroots organizing as he started working in politics, including finding faith in the idea that "ordinary people can work together to do extraordinary things."

"Chicago is where almost everything that is most precious to me began," he said. "Those beliefs guided me all the way through the presidency, and they have shaped our vision for the Obama Presidential Center."

To give back to the place they cherish so deeply, the former president said he and Mrs. Obama will build what he described as "the world's premiere institution for developing civic leaders across fields, across disciplines and, yes, across the political spectrum."

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From left: Michelle and Barack Obama in 2019. Scott Olson/Getty

The center's mission is to "empower the next generation of leaders" and serve as a "force for those who want to strengthen the democratic ideals and foster active citizenship," he said.

"It won't just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle's ball gowns, although I know everybody will come to see those," he joked. "It won't just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward."

The governor and the mayor joined the Obamas in front of the stage, grabbing shovels and scooping up some dirt while photographers captured the moment to wind down the ceremony.

Obama's former vice president, Joe Biden, did not attend the event but did record a message to mark the historic occasion and look back at a presidency that began, as now-President Biden put it, "13 Novembers ago."

"Each day since I think about the millions of people whose lives are better, a country that was made stronger and more equal and the president and first lady who made it all possible. With their dignity, their character and grace, Barack and Michelle led by the power of their example," Biden said in his video.

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Barack Obama (L) and Joe Biden. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Biden called the center a gift to the city, the country and the world. He also thanked the Obamas for their friendship. "Jill and I are forever grateful," he said. "I can't wait for the center to open and to share memories of our incredible journey together. We love you guys and hope to see you soon."

The Obama Foundation estimates the center will generate more than $3 billion for the local economy, while up to 5,000 jobs will be created as construction begins with more once it opens.

It will include a museum, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, green spaces, an athletic center, a restaurant, a place for children to play, recreation facilities, a test kitchen and a fruit and vegetable garden like the one Mrs. Obama kept at the White House and more.

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Michelle Obama

The former first lady said she's excited to exchange her shovel for a pair of giant scissors when the center opens.

"I can't wait for that day," she said in her speech. "We will walk through a world-class museum. We will stroll down the beautifully designed pathways. We will open up a playground with a state-of-the-art jungle gym for kids to climb on. Best of all for me is that we will have a big sledding hill for kids to slide down when it snows."

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