A self-guided tour through Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood takes you past a regal green-roofed clock tower, a hotel with an extensive porch, working-class cottages, and executive housing for what was once the Pullman Palace Car Company. The neighborhood was one of the first company towns in one of America’s first planned communities. It was also the site of a major strike that gave us a national holiday, and the place where the first black union formed.
Next week, President Obama plans to visit Chicago and designate the neighborhood as the nation's next national monument. There’s been strong support among Illinois congressmen and the local community for the president to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to set aside Pullman for protection.
Although most people think of snowcapped peaks and vast landscapes when they envision our national monuments and parks, plenty can be found in our cities. San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Park, for example, attracted 14.3 million people last year, making it the most-visited park in the country.
Historic and cultural significance are enough to qualify a place to become a national monument, says National Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson. And that makes Pullman a perfect candidate. It would be Obama’s 14th designation. He has already set aside hundreds of thousands of acres in California’s San Gabriel Mountains and made the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument a whole lot bigger.
George Pullman built the town that bears his name, now part of Chicago, in the 1880s. It was as a place for employees of his luxury rail car company to work and live. During the 1893 economic panic, he cut jobs and wages, but not rents. Workers went on strike, interrupting rail service. When the conflict escalated, strikers fatally clashed with federal troops, who killed 34 people. To appease the nation’s workers amid the strike, President Cleveland designated Labor Day.
In the 1920s, Pullman employed more African-Americans than any other private company in the country, most of them working as porters and waiters. Led by A. Philip Randolph, the group formed the first black union and fought for policies that provided opportunities to help build a black middle class.
“Parks shouldn’t only honor white people or large open spaces. We should be talking about slavery, Montgomery, the Underground Railroad,” Sandra Washington, the National Park Service’s associate regional director, told Grist recently, alluding to places like the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland, both designated by President Obama. “It’s more than deep canyons and big trees and the history of white people.”
Pullman is a mix of black, white, and Hispanic residents, many of whom have fought to protect their neighborhood from deterioration, destruction, and development for decades. Homeowners can use state-awarded grants to restore their historic homes, and the Hotel Florence, named for Pullman’s daughter, is now being renovated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
“We’ve been trying to tell the story—and preserve the neighborhood—certainly since the ’60s, when we were threatened to be leveled,” says Lorraine Brochu of the Pullman Civic Organization. Lured to the area by the tight-knit community, she moved to Pullman in 1989. “The idea of being able to elevate this storytelling to the national level, to the international level, is something we’re thrilled about,” she says.
The push to preserve Pullman isn’t new. Last year, legislators introduced two bills to make it a national park (they’re currently stuck in committee). But through the Antiquities Act, the president can offer similar protections. In August, after visiting Pullman, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis said he would likely suggest that Obama use those powers on the Chicago neighborhood.
When it becomes a monument, federal funding will allow Pullman to create a visitor center and potentially help restore buildings. Right now the neighborhood draws about 70,000 visitors a year; the park service expects that number to climb to 300,000.
Monument status could also bring more attention to some of the region’s nearby natural features, including wetlands and savannas currently being restored as part of a plan for a section of Illinois just south of Pullman. The Indiana dunes are close by, too. “There’s an ecosystem that’s unique globally,” says David Doig, president of the Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, which focuses on community development.
Residents are proud of their neighborhood, Doig says, and eager to see the park service recognize their efforts to maintain its integrity and history. “In many ways, the designation is the icing on the cake that validates a lot of that work.”
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