A group of Chicago residents and preservationists are working to win federal approval to turn the entire Pullman neighborhood on Chicago's Far South Side into a national park.
Built by railroad titan George Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Co., it was among America's first "company towns" and birthed the country's first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Its massive rail car production lines also were the backdrop for a deadly, two-month strike in 1894 that ultimately pushed public sentiment toward unions and government regulation of industry.
Pullman would be one of the more unusual sites for a national park and among the easiest to reach. The Metra Electric Line has two stops in the community of about 8,900 residents. It also would be one of the least bucolic.
Two residents said they're pushing for the park because the increased tourist traffic would help sustain retail businesses that otherwise can't survive in the neighborhood. A massive Wal-Mart is scheduled to open nearby this summer, but the area has been barren of dry cleaners, salons, restaurants and coffee shops for years.
"There's just not enough local purchasing power to sustain those businesses," said Michael Shymanski, a retired architect and urban planner who has lived in Pullman since 1967.
At the request of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the state's two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, the National Park Service is in the midst of studying the neighborhood's suitability as a national park site, said Mike Reynolds, the park service's Midwest regional director. The study should be complete by May.
"Pullman's significance is of no question," Reynolds said when asked what the study would conclude. "Then we have to ask is there another one like it already out there in our (parks) system? In this case, I doubt there is. ... Finally, we come to feasibility — the how, what, where. That's the challenging issue in this case."
If the study determines Pullman is a workable site, it would then be up to Durbin, Kirk and Jackson's not-yet-elected replacement to decide whether to try to shepherd a bill through Congress or to ask the president to use his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim the site a national monument.
The neighborhood has been a national historic landmark since 1970. During the last two years, the state has pumped $3.5 million into a partial renovation of the vacant Hotel Florence, which Pullman built in 1881 and named after his oldest daughter. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is now seeking a tenant. (The state has owned the hotel, and the factory and administration building across 111th Street, since 1991.)
Park designation would bring with it even more: federal money, a staff, park rangers, tours and, of course, national publicity and prestige.
The campaign for a national park in Chicago is being pushed by a coalition of preservationists, including Lynn McClure, Midwest director of the National Parks Conservation Association; David Peterson Jr., president of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum; and Pullman residents, including Arthur Pearson, director of Chicago programs at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and Shymanski, president of the Historic Pullman Foundation.
McClure said opposition dissipates as soon as it's explained that becoming a park will not result in anyone's homes being taken.
"When the park service designates a national park, they only take control over the properties they need to," McClure said. "In this case, it's likely they would take possession of the administration building, what's colloquially known as the clock tower building."
McClure is organizing a trip in April for more than a dozen government and civic leaders to visit the national historical park in Lowell, Mass., a collection of water-powered textile mills and related sites. The Lowell park is similar in that it tells a tale of the Industrial Revolution and also had fallen on hard times before it was preserved as a national historical park in 1978.
In Pullman, an arson fire swept through the vacant administration building in 1998, destroying most of it.
"I was coming home on the Metra and one of the conductors was saying, 'Boy, that Pullman building, it's too bad about it,'" Pearson said. "And I'm thinking which building? Because we've lost a couple over the years. He said, 'No. The clock tower. It's on fire.' It was the longest train ride in the world. By the time I got there, it was a burning ember, and all we could do is just watch it burn. ... It's our day that lives in infamy. It's seared into our memory."
The Romanesque clock tower was hoisted back into place in 2005.
"The opportunity I think now is rather than just stopping the bad things from happening or trying to respond to all of these little crises, the park is an opportunity to be proactive," Pearson said.
Shymanski said most residents are attracted to the area for its affordability and stunning architecture, which is more emblematic of Boston than Chicago. Of the approximately 900 homes Pullman built for his workers and managers, almost all of them are still standing.
"Out here we have true believers," Shymanski said.
According to Donald Miller's book "City of the Century," a London reporter in the late 1800s called Pullman "the most perfect city in the world." Miller described people stepping off the train and walking along an elm-bordered boulevard to a sparkling lake with an ornamental waterfall. Every slate-roofed cottage had running water, gas and an indoor toilet. And the streets were paved and lit with gas lamps at night.
But it was not a charitable enterprise. Pullman set rents high enough to guarantee a 6 percent return. And it was the cutting of wages during a recession — while rents in company-owned housing stayed the same — that bred the strike, led by Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union. The state later forced the Pullman company to sell its residential property.
My late grandmother's longtime boyfriend, John Antrim, worked for Pullman in the 1940s. During World War II, while waiting to be called up for active duty in the Army Air Forces, he worked in Pullman's shipyard. Later, on summer breaks during college, he installed ceiling panels inside Pullman railroad cars.
"The attitude of people who lived there was rather unique," Antrim, 87, said. "They appreciated what the company had done. At least that was my impression. I remember many of them speaking Polish … and I know from shopping there, too, that there was an esprit de corps among the people who lived there. They thought very highly of where they lived."
Much hasn't changed in that regard.
"I've lived in lots of different neighborhoods in the city, and this is a place that is different from any other place where I've lived," said Pearson, whose grandfather lived in Pullman starting in 1888. "It's literally a small town in a big city. People wave. They say, 'Hi, how ya doing?' Tourists are here, 'Oh, can I help you?' We kind of joke that if we want to take a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood, you go 2 feet, you know someone, and you spend a half-hour there."