All national monuments have a story to tell. But the Pullman National Monument on Chicago’s far South Side is special because it showcases several cultural and historic touchstones – industrial innovation, urban planning, civil rights, and the labor movement.
“I don't know of many sites that have four such strong unique stories that resonate with so many Americans,” said Kathy Schneider, the National Park Service superintendent for Pullman. “Almost everybody can relate to something that’s happened here at the site.”
In 1865, George Pullman’s deluxe sleeping train cars helped revolutionize rail as a means of transportation and recreation. Soon his sprawling factory employed thousands and led to the development of Pullman village, a company town that became an iconic example of architecture and urban planning.
Pullman is also closely linked with the Great Migration, thanks to the Pullman Porters, African-American men who staffed railroad cars and whose service distinguished the company. The Pullman Porters, many of whom moved from the southern United States to Chicago, became symbols of upward mobility as they traveled across the country.
While Pullman Porters did not live in Pullman village, both they and factory workers fought for their rights, making Pullman the focal point of successive, bitter labor battles.
The site could sustain 356 jobs, $15 million in wages and $40 million in economic impact within 10 years.
These contradictory legacies are becoming more widely known and publicly accessible. President Barack Obama issued a proclamation designating the Pullman Historic District a National Monument in February 2015. The National Park Service is working with private donors and local partners to further develop and preserve the 203-acre site, which could sustain 356 jobs, $15 million in wages and $40 million in economic impact within 10 years, according to an economic impact study.
The Pullman National Monument tells a distinct American story about opportunity. George Pullman was an industrialist who helped shape and build the economy and culture of the Midwest and the nation after the Industrial Revolution. He sought to provide quality of life for his workers, building a library, parks, and other amenities for employees in the nation’s first model industrial community.
But things soured after the 1893 economic crisis, which led George Pullman to cut wages without reducing the rents he charged employees living in the village. Factory workers launched a strike supported by labor leaders and other workers nationwide, paving the way for a new era of labor laws and the creation of Labor Day as a national holiday.
African-Americans had their own labor victory in ensuing years. The Pullman Porters became the first African-American labor union in the country, started by organizer A. Philip Randolph in 1925 and recognized by the American Federation of Labor in 1937.
Early porters were typically freed slaves from the south who worked up to 20 hours per day for low pay. Despite this, workers coming from abject poverty as sharecroppers or slaves saw these jobs as a step up economically and socially. They earned respect from their neighbors in the north, and disseminated information throughout the south via word of mouth and distribution of the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper.
This place can inspire current and future generations. The history provides a good basis for discussing the opportunities and challenges in fulfilling the promises of America.
“The Pullman Porters’ existence provided the foundation for the black middle-class in the U.S., and played a major role in ushering in the Great Migration,” said Dr. Lyn Hughes, an activist scholar who 22 years ago founded the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. “Even African-Americans who may not live in Pullman have a connection to this history.”
Michael Shymanski and his wife, Patricia, were attracted to Pullman by the architecture, community spirit, and history of the neighborhood, he said. They have supported Pullman’s preservation and restoration since moving to the community in 1967. He is the founder and president of the Historic Pullman Foundation.
“This place can inspire current and future generations,” Shymanski said. “The history provides a good basis for discussing the opportunities and challenges in fulfilling the promises of America.”
The Pullman National Monument currently draws up to 30,000 visitors a year from the region and around the world. An economic impact study estimated that after a decade of ramp-up, as many as 300,000 people a year could visit the Pullman National Monument.
Hughes hopes the historic Pullman fire station can become the new home of the National A. Philip Randolph Museum, which is currently located on the neighborhood's north side. Local leaders hope to reopen the state-owned Hotel Florence, built in 1881 to serve visiting industrialists and other elites, as a restaurant or other attraction.
Plans are already underway to develop the National Park Service visitor center in the Pullman factory clock tower, a grandiose sprawling brick structure that was salvaged after being seriously damaged in a 1998 fire. The 10,000-square-foot center is slated for completion in 2018. It also will serve as a hub to direct guests to attractions that already exist, such as the Historic Pullman Foundation, which maintains exhibits and a video presentation about Pullman.
The visitor center rehabilitation will be completed with privately donated funds, because no federal funds have been appropriated for the project.
“The intent was for partnerships, to join with partners already doing great things,” said Schneider. “We can do a lot more together than any of us can individually.”
The nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) is working with the National Park Service to design the visitor center and a nearby mixed-use and industrial hub. CNI has already invested more than $4.6 million to renovate 23 historic properties in the neighborhood to increase affordable housing, with funding from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
The additional attention, resources and visitors following from the National Park is providing new opportunities for entrepreneurs to locate and start growing businesses in Pullman.
CNI has also spearheaded $250 million of public and private investment in the community over the last several years. A new Whole Foods distribution center will join other recent additions that include: Method, an environmentally-friendly manufacturer of cleaning supplies; a 17-acre retail center featuring a Walmart Supercenter; and Gotham Greens, which boasts one of the largest commercial green-roofs in the world.
“The additional attention, resources and visitors following from the National Park is providing new opportunities for entrepreneurs to locate and start growing businesses in Pullman,” said CNI President David Doig. “Soon more people will need more places to eat, to sleep, to shop, and more businesses will follow making Pullman a stronger, more vibrant community.”
There is no doubt designation of a National Monument in Pullman is a huge catalyst not just for bringing visitors in but making substantive improvements for the community itself, according to Lynn McClure, senior regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a private organization partnering in the Pullman development.
“You think about how you can operate a national park in a neighborhood and as a place to foster business growth and economic development,” McClure said. “You have everyone participating, making this urban national park successful through their sheer determination.”
MacArthur provided $500,000 in 2015 to the National Park Foundation to support the establishment of a visitor Center for Pullman National Monument.