CHIGAGO — Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan spent much of his life in California, but residents in the Midwestern state of Illinois note proudly that he was born and raised there. He spent a brief period of his childhood in Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago, which is also President Barack Obama’s old neighborhood. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, a debate is under way about the historic importance of Reagan’s old home, which faces the wrecking ball to make way for an expansion of the University of Chicago’s medical campus.
It is a non-descript building in a south Chicago neighborhood. But for some local residents, 832 East 57th Street, in Hyde Park, is anything but ordinary.
Ronald Reagan lived here before he was president.
“President Reagan fondly recalled living there. // He spoke about the gaslit streets and borrowing (toy) soldiers from his neighbor. So he had these fond memories of being there,” said Susan Davis, who lives in Hyde Park. She wrote a book on the neighborhood's historic structures and says most people don't know that Reagan lived here in 1915.
“It actually wasn’t discovered that he did live here until the ‘80s,” she said.
Which is partly why the home was ignored. That is until the University of Chicago purchased the property with plans to tear it down to make way for an expanding medical campus.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks refused to grant the building landmark status, clearing the way for its demolition. Those with ties to the 40th president oppose the decision.
“This is an opportunity to have this home as another tourist destination for them, reflecting the history of the only president born in the state of Illinois,” said Ann Lewis, who is on the board of directors of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home and Museum in Dixon, Illinois, about 160 kilometers west of Chicago. Reagan spent most of his formative years there.
"He would be honored to have something in Chicago that reflected his name and part of his legacy in the state of Illinois,” Lewis said.
“If I was a Reagan person, I would probably be very upset,” said Daniel Weinberg, a presidential historian and owner of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. The store honors the civil war president, who also lived in Illinois. Weinberg is not convinced Reagan’s Chicago home is worth saving.
“One can’t save everything, and he was very young and was only here for a couple of years. I understand that it's important, but what about every single place that he or any president lived?," Weinberg said.
The University of Chicago declined VOA's request for an interview. But Hyde Park Alderwoman Leslie Hairston says the school is communicating with her office and the community about a way to move forward with the demolition, while honoring President Reagan’s legacy in the area.
“We have had meetings with the community, and they found a way to respectfully commemorate President Reagan’s time there. They are going to put a plaque there,” Hairston said.
But Hairston says another president may eventually overshadow Ronald Reagan in Hyde Park. Barack Obama lived here before his inauguration in 2009 and could choose the neighborhood as the future home of his presidential library.