Who Backs the Bid?: The view from the ground of the 2016 Olympics

A Bronzeville community center sporting a billboard in support of the Olympics bid; Rachel Reed

A Bronzeville community center sporting a billboard in support of the Olympics bid; Rachel Reed

Bankrupt and deserted, the Michael Reese Hospital on the 2900 block of Ellis Avenue is an unlikely site for Olympic grandeur. But across the street from the hospital, flags wave in the parking lot of the Prairie Shores apartment complex to welcome members of the International Olympics Committee, who visited Chicago this past week, to the projected site of the Olympic Village for the Chicago 2016 Games.
As the city rehearsed for the IOC’s visit, an impromptu gathering of Bronzeville residents came together at the Dunkin’ Donuts across from Prairie Shores to make their own assessment of the city’s Olympics potential. Jerry B. and Maurice Wilson, who grew up in Bronzeville, visit the coffee shop regularly to talk with old friends. As I asked them about their take on the Olympics, patrons from other tables leaned in to join the conversation.
A large city-supplied “We Back the Bid” banner hangs outside the shop, but support by those inside was lukewarm. “The Olympics only benefit the rich,” said Wilson, who has moved away from the neighborhood and works as a school dean in Riverdale. Other patrons suggested that it wasn’t just business interests like those represented by Patrick Ryan, the insurance tycoon who heads the Chicago 2016 effort, who stand to profit. “We know it’s going to benefit the mayor, ‘cause he always gets something under the table,” someone said. But residents saw little to gain for themselves. One woman at the next table claimed that the Games would attract higher-income retail to the neighborhood, naming Crate and Barrel, Starbucks, Neiman Marcus, and Jamba Juice as possibilities discussed at a recent community meeting. But Jerry B. pointed out that these amenities would be out of the financial reach of most Prairie Shores residents, many of whom are seniors living on fixed income.
The plans proposed by the Chicago 2016 commission call for extensive development across the city, but the two most high-profile venues would be built on the South Side: the Olympic Village in Bronzeville would house 17,000 athletes and officials, and the Olympic Stadium would be built to seat 80,000 people in Washington Park. After the Games, the commission’s bid book claims, both buildings would be converted for community use, with the stadium shrinking into a 5,000-seat amphitheatre and the Olympic Village living on as mixed-income housing. Bronzeville is no stranger to gentrification–the neighborhood is economically diverse and has seen significant recent construction. But for some residents of Prairie Shores, the prospect of improvements in eight years is cold comfort when service providers like the hospital are disappearing.
Less tangible amenities are at stake as well. Wilson, who plays softball in Washington Park, worried that the proposed construction of the Olympic Stadium there will change the park for the worse. “I rode ponies in Washington Park when I was a kid,” he said. “What’s going to happen to that?” Long-running traditions like the Bud Billiken Parade, held every August since 1929, distinguish Washington Park from other open spaces in Chicago. “Take that away,” Wilson argued, “[and you] take away a big part of the South Side.”