When President Obama visits Chicago on Thursday he’ll head to the bucolic nook known as the Pullman Historic District, between 103rd and 115th Streets, and officially designate it a national monument.
Sure, the timing’s a bit hinky as Obama’s pal Rahm Emanuel campaigns for mayoral reelection and attempts to woo voters — South Siders among them. But the designation is mostly a boon to Pullman itself — long one of America’s most historically significant sites and a National Landmark District since 1970 — and Illinois tourism in general.
The status is “clearly a stabilizing [factor],” says Mike Wagenbach, Pullman superintendant for the State Historic Site, who calls Pullman an “incredibly viable neighborhood.”
A friendly one, too.
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“People do not come home and pull into their garage and disappear,” he says. “It’s a walking neighborhood. The joke around Pullman is when you go out for a ten-minute walk, you come back in an hour.”
Mike Shymanski, president and founding member of the Historic Pullman Foundation, is a longtime resident of the area (he’s known as the unofficial “mayor”) and one of its biggest boosters. Like Wagenbach, he’s excited about Pullman’s forthcoming honor and the positive changes it might spur.
“It’s going to matter big-time,” he says of the monument designation. “First of all, the stories about Pullman are going to be clarified and become more accurate. There’s all sorts of misinformation out there because of people trying to write things with prejudice in mind of one kind or another — trying to make an argument and misrepresenting the facts.”
Shymanski is biased, granted, but even he admits that those facts are “complicated.”
Pullman’s evolution began in 1879, when rail car mogul George M. Pullman hired architects Solon Spencer Beman and Nathan F. Barrett to design a small town on several thousand acres he owned about a dozen miles south of Chicago’s Loop. The visionary industrialist would preside over his carefully planned capitalist utopia (as he saw it) in the manner of a parental figure and/or feudal lord (opinions varied) and those who inhabited it. America’s first “company town,” Pullman spawned many others in ensuing years, including one built by chocolate magnate Milton Hersey in Hershey, PA.
“I want the people who work at Pullman to have the advantages of seeing the best,” Pullman once said. “I want no cheap, crude, inartistic work in any department. I have faith in the educational and refining influences of beauty and beautiful and harmonious surroundings, and hesitate at no reasonable expenditure to secure them.”
Construction of housing (using Lake Calumet clay-made bricks) outfitted with indoor plumbing, handsomely paved streets and a top-notch sewage system began the next year. Lush foliage was brought in as well, and there was regular trash removal.
In early 1881 residents — comprised of laborers, managers and executives from Pullman’s manufacturing company, whose sprawling on-site plant produced luxurious Pullman Palace Cars — started settling in to their immaculately clean and thoroughly modern new environment.
As Harper’s magazine described the town of Pullman in 1885, “What is seen in a walk or drive through the streets is so pleasing to the eye that a woman’s first exclamation is certain to be, ‘Perfectly lovely!’ It is indeed a sight as rare as it is delightful. What might have been taken for a wealthy suburban town is given up to busy workers, who literally earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.”
By then, Pullman’s population had swelled to nearly 9,000, and it kept ticking upward to around 14,000. Housing-wise, employees were assigned to rented dwellings based on their status within the Pullman Company — in effect, socially segregated.
In this idealized, if isolated, place that one writer likened to “an American barony,” there was no drinking at Pullman’s sole tavern except by visitors. “Spotters” were employed to keep an eye on rule flouters and maintain quality control. Close-by shopping options were limited to the impressive but expensive Arcade Building and only one (rentable) house of worship space (the Greenstone Church) served a multi-denominational community.
As Shymanski points out, however, residents were free to bring in booze from surrounding areas. “Spotters” were no different than the security guards a condo building might employ, people were free to shop outside the town and many other churches were soon established in the vicinity.
“[Pullman] tried to maintain a good environment and an aspirational environment,” he says.
“There were people who lived here for 40 or 50 years. There were people who had the ability to exercise choice and leave. If it was so bad, why did people stay?”
Besides the Arcade and Greenstone, other notable structures erected Pullman — once hyperbolically dubbed “The World’s Most Perfect Town” — were the $130,000 Hotel Florence (named after Pullman’s favorite daughter), Pullman’s clock tower-topped factory and Market Hall (the second iteration following the first of two fires in 1892). They stand, in various states of restoration and disrepair, to this day.
After a crippling depression hit and the stock market tanked in 1893, George Pullman began firing low-level employees and severely cutting their wages — but not their rents. (Pullman unapologetically shielded himself and upper-level managers from financial strife). Before long, he had an uprising on his hands as workers went on strike. Rioting erupted and things got bloody. Train service in railway hub Chicago and, consequently, the entire nation was severely disrupted as Pullman cars were yanked from tracks (mail service took a big hit, too). Federal troops were finally sent in to quell the tumult.
“People do not come home and pull into their garage and disappear. It’s a walking neighborhood. The joke around Pullman is when you go out for a ten-minute walk, you come back in an hour.”
“The impact basically shut down commerce in the western half of the country,” Shymanski says. “What started out as a manufacturing dispute over wages during a recession” had blossomed into something much more dire.
George Pullman’s reputation was bloodied thereafter, too, and a presidential commission that investigated the strike determined that his town’s “aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread.”
When Pullman died in 1897, his family reportedly feared that angry former employees would desecrate Pullman’s body. As a protective measure, he was placed in a lead-lined casket and buried under cover of night, eight feet deep, amid steel-reinforced concrete at Chicago’s Graceland cemetery.
In 1907, the Pullman Company began selling off non-industrial property and buildings to individual owners as per a court order. But as the company headed toward boom times in the 1920s, its once bustling town continued to decline.
Today, despite a pockmarked past and thanks to its latest honor, the future of Pullman has never seemed brighter.
“First of all, you’re on the National Parks map, and that’s fantastic branding,” Shymanski says. “You’re on the same map that takes people to the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty.”
Beyond that, he says, the vast resources of the National Park Service will “clarify and help structure the interpretation of the historic district” and the power to draw visitors will be greatly enhanced. More visitors equals more money, which in turn could prompt more businesses — restaurants, bars, hotels, grocery stores — to set up shop in the area and more people to call it home.
Perhaps just as important, Shymanski says, “It will elevate the sense of pride not only of the people in Pullman but those who live around it.”
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