Pullman: A national historic park in Chicago?
Photo courtesy of the Pullman State Historic Site
Pullman, originally built as a factory town, has a long history in Chicago.
- By Arthur M. Pearson, chair of Pullman ArtSpace, and director, Chicago Program, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation
- June 28, 2013
I love visiting our national parks. Yosemite. Yellowstone. Rocky Mountain. Later this summer I’m returning to Glacier for the second time. But sometime soon my visit to a national park may be as easy as walking out my front door. For the past year, efforts have been underway to designate Pullman, one of Chicago's southernmost neighborhoods, as a national historical park, the first national park in Chicago and only the second in the entire state of Illinois.
I moved to Pullman nearly 20 years ago on a bit of a whim. My father had one day mentioned that his father had once worked for the Pullman company. Having grown up in the south suburbs, I must have passed the 111th Street exit on the Bishop Ford Freeway (formerly the Calumet Expressway) hundreds of times without ever having a clue what lay just a few blocks to the west.
On my very first visit to Pullman, I felt this strong sense of community; something I hadn’t experienced in any of the other Chicago neighborhoods in which I’d lived. People sat on their front porches. They’d wave and say hi. And if you stopped to ask a question, they were generous in sharing anything and everything they knew about Pullman—the man, the company, the town.
The layout of the town allows for walkability, density and inviting public spaces. Photo courtesy of the Pullman State Historic Site.
After only a few visits, I decided to buy a house in Pullman. I had never owned a house before. I had just returned to Chicago after another extended period of time working out of town. I wanted to put down roots. The fact that my grandfather had lived and worked in Pullman during its heyday in the late 1880s provided a tie to the community. But more than that, more than the friendliness of the people I’d met and their deep connection to history, there was something else that drew me inextricably into the community; something imbedded in the very bricks and mortar and grounds of the place.
Over the course of nearly 20 years, I’ve come to understand that a big part of what makes Pullman such a unique and extraordinary place is, indeed, the layout and design of the town itself. There are many stories of national significance to be told here. George Pullman embodied the American Dream, rising from a working class background to revolutionize and virtually monopolize the nation’s passenger rail industry. The National Park Service is particularly interested in Pullman’s labor history, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
But not to be overlooked is the urban planning story. As a longtime resident, I can attest to how the built environment fosters the strong sense of community that led Pullman residents in the 1960s to fight to keep their community from being razed in favor of a light industrial park, and residents today to advocate for designation as a national historical park.
In fact, a quick glance at Pullman through the lens of the 10 principles of New Urbanism underscores just how cutting edge Pullman was and is.
Back in the day, Pullman executives typically lived closest to the factory, but the farthest any worker had to walk to work was five blocks. And what a pleasant walk it was, along tree-lined streets, past beautiful homes. Today, I enjoy much the same pedestrian experience as my grandfather did upon his arrival from Sweden in 1888.
Although the community was built before the advent of the automobile, Pullman streets and alleys comprise an interconnected grid that easily accommodates contemporary traffic without spoiling the small town, neighborhood feel.
Mixed-Use & Diversity
Pullman is home to a thriving arts sector. Here, Chris Hodak's "Thismia Americana" presented in the Pullman factory space. Photo by Chris Hodak.
In addition to being anchored by a major industrial complex, the town included market buildings, a hotel, a church, a library and a bank. Historically, the town was populated by many different nationalities, with nearly half the town foreign-born. Today, a diversity of ages, ethnicities, and income and education levels continues to define the community. And the hope is that designation as a national historical park will help drive the adaptive reuse of the town’s diversity of historic public structures, including turning abandoned apartment buildings into a Pullman Artspace.
- A Range of Types, Sizes and Prices in Closer Proximity
Pullman’s 900 units of housing are a mix of single-family and multi-family dwellings. Homes in the southern residential section tend to be priced higher than homes in the northern residential section. But recent rehab work by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives in North Pullman promises to bring homes there up to market rates.
- Quality Architecture & Urban Design
As a businessman, George Pullman could have opted for the nondescript, the utilitarian, the uniform. Instead, he directed Solon Beman (architect) and Nathan Barrett (landscape architect) to design a diversity of buildings, parks and gardens that would attract and retain the best workers. The PCO Beman Committee, on which I serve, recently documented 111 different façade types in South Pullman sporting nearly 60 different styles of windows, doors and porches.
- Traditional Neighborhood Structure
The discernible boundaries of the community are 103rd Street south to 115th Street, Cottage Grove east to Langley/Corliss avenues. At the center of the community is the commercial center, anchored by a large public park historically tended by the company and today stewarded by the Historic Pullman Garden Club.
Pullman workers lived close to work, and the town was designed with walkability in mind. Photo courtesy of the Pullman State Historic Site.
The majority of Pullman homes are rowhouses. More than just efficient, the clustering of homes side by side with each other reflects the close-knit nature of the people who live here.
- Green Transportation
As a company town that produced both freight and passenger trains, Pullman is sited along a major rail corridor. Express Metra trains from Pullman to Millennium Station in downtown Chicago take 22 minutes. If you must drive, access to the Bishop Ford Freeway lies three blocks to the east. Back in the day, Pullman used to be the terminus for city bike races. Today, the annual Pullman Labor Day Bike Ride underscores just how bicycle-friendly the community remains.
Pullman rose up out of the wet prairies surrounding Lake Calumet, then and now a major ecological treasure. To minimize impacts on the lake, all of the wastewater from the town was pumped through natural sand filters and the resulting grey water was used to irrigate farmlands south of the town. The Pullman farm is long gone, but Pullman Urban Gardeners harvest rainwater from the Pullman Clock Tower to irrigate their raised vegetable garden beds on the grounds of the Pullman State Historic Site.
- Quality of Life
According to New Urbanism, “Taken together these [principles] add up to a high quality of life well worth living, and create places that enrich, uplift, and inspire the human spirit.” I often wonder if my grandfather—who died many years before I was born—felt this way about Pullman. He was among the one-third of Pullman workers who was laid off in the events that led to the landmark Pullman Strike of 1894. Certainly there was a dark side to Pullman—the man, the company, the town. But there remains, in spite of all, an exceptional beauty and a strong community deservedly poised to become a National Historical Park.
New Urbanism/urban planning is but one of the stories to be shared with a broader audience if Pullman were to become a national historical park. Others include labor history with a particular emphasis on the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, transportation history and George Pullman, himself: the visionary, controversial, self-made mogul. For an update on the Pullman National Historical Park effort, go to http://www.npca.org/about-us/regional-offices/midwest/sign-on-letter-for-pullman.html.