Chicago's historic Pullman neighborhood, site of black unionization, eyed for national park

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CHICAGO — It was a different kind of company town. Chicago's Pullman neighborhood, built by industrialist George M. Pullman in the 19th century, was a sort of blue-collar utopia for people who worked at his state-of-the-art factory, where they built luxurious railroad sleeping cars.

Homes were built almost entirely of brick and constructed in Romanesque Revival or Gothic architectural styles, including mansions for Pullman executives and rowhomes rented to workers. Although most of the original factory buildings are gone, much of the 12-block neighborhood on the city's southeast side still is intact. The Pullman Works administration building and clock tower, which survived a fire and have been rebuilt, serve as a landmark for the area, along with the 1881 Hotel Florence.

But the Pullman neighborhood represents more than an experiment in urban design. Preservationists say it's an integral part of Chicago, industrial history, the history of black workers and the evolution of unions and the Civil Rights Movement.

Many now are pushing for making it an urban national park. The Associated Press spoke with National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis about that possibility.


Q: Why is the National Park Service interested in the Pullman neighborhood?

A: One of our core missions is to ensure that the story of all Americans is told through the place that it happened. We have always had responsibility for Civil War and Revolutionary War sites, and in the last 25 years we have added other sites, including ... Japanese-American internment camps. But the story is incomplete.

If you step back further and look as a nation at what we set aside as historic (on the National Register of Historic Places), less than 10 percent of 80,000 sites represent the contributions of minorities and women. This is a problem. We want to make sure we are telling the complete story of the American experience.

Q: How does Pullman fit in?

A: Pullman represents some really, really important themes for us. On a broad scale, the Pullman town site represents a period of industrial company towns ... but more important is the story of the Pullman porters, the (1894) strike, the rise of the black union with the rise of the sleeping car porters" and the Civil Rights movement. You mix all that in, and ... a whole line of history originates out of Pullman.

Q: What could inclusion in the National Park Service do for the Pullman neighborhood?

A: The Park Service brand has worldwide recognition and certainly broad recognition in the U.S. People go to national parks because they are national parks. ... Every dollar we invest generates about $4 for the local economy. We estimate that Pullman would draw about 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year and pump $12 million $15 million into the local economy.

Q: What are the options for establishing Pullman as a national park?

A: There is legislation in Congress (to declare it a national park) but it has not gotten out of committee in either body. I think it is highly unlikely anything legislative is going to move anytime soon ... so I think my recommendation to (Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell) will be that they consider this for action by the president (under the Antiquities Act).

Q: How would the park be funded, and how long before it would open?

A: It's always a mix of ... federal, city, county, state and nonprofit (funding.). We work with foundations to bring in corporate and private philanthropy money.

It takes a couple years of working with the community and partners like the state of Illinois, non-governmental organizations and the city in a joint planning effort ... then we would develop cost estimates. Then it would probably take four to five years before we really had something (to open to the public).

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