Atlantic Cities

Why Chicago Wants to Turn a Struggling Neighborhood Into a National Park

Why Chicago Wants to Turn a Struggling Neighborhood Into a National Park
Library of Congress

In certain contexts – if you happen to be into the early American labor movement, the architecture of 19th century company towns, or black history during the Great Migration – the Pullman neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago is a significant place. Before it was overtaken by the growing city to the north, Pullman was a planned company town on the prairie founded in 1880 by industrialist George Pullman, who needed a place to manufacture his rail cars and to house the workers who built them.

At the time, Pullman was America's first model industrial town, with company housing and company stores (people who worked for Pullman, in other words, were invited to give their paychecks right back to him). Pullman (the place and the company) is also noteworthy for several key events in the history of organized labor: An 1894 strike you may recall from high school history class (Pullman deviously tried to cut wages without cutting rent), and a milestone in 1937 when the company agreed to recognize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the country's first black union.

Today, 20 percent of the neighborhood lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is nearly twice the city's average. The remaining original architecture from the factory grounds, the market, and the worker housing, is interspersed with vacant lots and abandoned homes.

Now, in an effort to revitalize the area, Chicago is leveraging its history to turn Pullman into a National Historic Park. Today, Illinois' two senators and a local congresswoman turned up in the neighborhood to announce plans to introduce a bill in Congress to move forward with the process (as economic development strategies go, enticing the National Park Service is a slow one).


The Pullman neighborhood is crudely drawn in red here.

Last September, the National Park Service released a preliminary study suggesting that the neighborhood might, in fact, warrant such status for its historical significance (although not everyone in Chicago is sold). Next up, Congress needs to authorize an economic feasibility study, which could take up to two years. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is also throwing its weight behind the idea.

There are currently about four-dozen National Historic Parks in the country. You've got Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, Appomattox Courthouse, and a park commemorating the first battle of the Revolutionary War. There aren't a lot of urban neighborhoods in the mix (residents of Washington, D.C., might also argue that the government agency that runs Yellowstone isn't very good at this milieu). But there are some precedents: the site around Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.

The bigger question for Pullman – since this is an exercise in drawing tourists and creating jobs as much as preserving history – is whether many people would come. The Pullman story is no doubt a good one, with both positive and darker sides. Here's a nice summary from the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

Unfortunately, not all of Pullman’s notions were as successful. His brand of “corporate paternalism” began chafing the town’s residents almost from the beginning, as most aspects of residents’ lives were closely controlled by the company. According to Pullman State Historical Site archives, Pullman employees declared, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”

Perhaps someone already in Chicago for other reasons would come by to learn more about that. But would that be enough to change the neighborhood's prospects?

When the preliminary Park Service study was released several months go, Illinois Senator Dick Durban hopefully touted this statistic: Every dollar invested in National Park operations generates 10 dollars locally.

Top image taken at the end of the 19th century in Pullman, Illinois: The Library of Congress.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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