I’ve always marveled at some of my friends who choose to live close to work. I mean, really close to work. A handful of them can measure their daily commute in steps.
Is the result of living that close to your job, the same as feeling as you’re constantly working? Are you in constant trepidation that you may be called into work at any moment? Given some crisis, your boss knows you live within 50 yards of the office, so aren’t you the likely candidate to get that last minute call for help?
Or do you gain more hours in your life, outside of work, because you’re not stuck in a car, bus or train commuting? What if your employer helped, not only find you housing, but built its workers an array of housing adjacent to amenities like a shopping center, gym and a park for ease?
As someone who’s experienced the stress of finding an apartment in the city more times than I would like to count, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have my boss find my apartment for me.
These are the thoughts that came to mind on my recent visit to the Pullman neighborhood. You can’t visit without the palpable history of the neighborhood being in the forefront of your mind. The neighborhood’s story is well-known as the grand experiment in urban planning that George Pullman undertook in building his company town. What’s remarkable is that so much of it remains standing.
Undoubtedly a visionary of his time and a captain of industry, Pullman wanted to create a space to motivate workers, attract top talent and provide amenities. He also wanted to create an environment so satisfactory (in theory) that it would circumvent any potential labor problems (like unions) that would affect production and profit.
So was it more about the bottom line and his personal profit or really about providing his workers with a better way of life? Was he a visionary or an inflexible tyrant? After all, he did name the town after himself.
And he was vocal about his goal – to create an environment that would result in the perfect factory worker that was hygienically clean, responsible, sober and exhibited his standard of moral ethics. There were a lot of rules in his town and that, to me, always seems like a slippery slope where life could become stifling, homogenous and dismal really quickly!
I can think of many modern era innovators (Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, the late Steve Jobs) that have been widely written about – storied egos and possibly flawed philosophies but all driven by the singular belief that their ideas and visions make (and made) the world a better place. Was George Pullman perhaps a determined, misunderstood disruptor of his era – a philosophical business magnate trying to prove his grand experiment hoping to perfect capitalism?
Walking around Pullman, which was deemed a national monument by former President Barack Obama in 2015, these were the questions I was left to ponder. Eventually, Pullman’s experiment failed. However, during that time, the Pullman neighborhood contributed greatly to the industrial, labor and civil rights movements.
A brief history of Pullman
George Mortimer Pullmanwas from upstate New York and arrived in Chicago to make money through his work as an engineer raising buildings in the Loop for positive drainage. (In 1855, a plan was hatched to raise the elevation of the entire city due to poor storm and sewage drainage and the resulting mud and related threats to sanitation and health.) President Michael Shymanski of the Historic Pullman Foundation said Pullman made money raising buildings but saw an opportunity with the booming growth of the American transcontinental railway system and passenger travel which would lead him to his “real passion.”
Train travel was dirty and uncomfortable and sleeping overnight (sometimes travel would be week-long) on a train was cramped and stifling. Pullman recognized the demand in the market for a comfortable passenger rail car, dining car and eventually, a luxurious sleeper rail car. He debuted his Pullman Sleeper Car in 1859. The Pullman Palace Car Company was created in 1867. His palace cars were luxurious and felt like a “hotel on wheels” equipped with chandeliers, luxury bedding, gourmet meals, air conditioning and porters. More on the porters later.
No one railway company had the right-of-way across the entire country. Pullman was a savvy enough businessman that “he was able to develop contracts with all the different railroad companies so his network of service covered the developed part of North America, parts of Mexico and Canada. He was able to provide this high level of service throughout the entire continent,” said Shymanski. “Later, in the 1920’s and 1930’s Pullman cars were in over twenty languages. Pullman became synonymous with luxury and comfort internationally.”
So what kind of guy was George Pullman?
“He (initially) paid people what they were worth. He attracted a lot of talent. He was always well-dressed. He was meticulous about his attire. He was meticulous about the quality of products that they built. So he was able to influence a lot of style and design,” said Shymanski.
The Historic Pullman Foundation is a fabulous resource and maintains a comprehensive webpage on the history of George Pullman and the neighborhood of Pullman. According to its timeline, in 1879, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres (of which 600 was used) to build America’s first model industrial town.
“(The town) was part of a major experiment he conducted,” said Shymanski. “He thought if you build a plant, you should also build a positive environment for the workers to live and raise a family and positively influence their development, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of immigrants. They had to attract a lot of skilled people from Europe who were engineers, mechanics, craftsman to deal with technology… For the palace cars, they wanted them ostentatious so they had to attract woodworkers, artists who could do stained glass and murals.”
Architect Solon Spencer Beman was only 27 years old when he was hired, along with Nathan F. Barrett who would serve as the landscape architect to build the town. The factory would be in the center of town within easy walking distance, the larger homes for executives and managers in the inner ring, and then row houses for workers beyond that, and even smaller row houses on the outskirts of the grid.
In 1889, Pullman was annexed by the city of Chicago by popular vote. The town had a hotel (named Florence after George’s favorite daughter), shopping areas (the Arcade and Market Hall), bank, post office and church. Pullman didn’t really want to deal with running taverns so there weren’t any. And of course, there were all those moral codes he hoped to instill in his workers.
In 1893, the World’s Fair made Pullman a national and international destination, and 1,740 worker’s units were managed by the Pullman Land Association. The good times quickly turned.
With the national economic downturn and depression known as the “Panic of 1893,” demand for Pullman products significantly declined. “The demand for freight cars dropped by 90% and the demand for passenger cars had grown highly competitive” with other competing companies said Shymanski.
Pullman took contracts at a loss and cut workers’ wages (by a quarter to one-third) but he didn’t reduce any of the rents of the company’s housing. This resulted in a significant worker’s strike in May 11, 1894 led by Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union. During this time the union had around 150,000 members who went on strike. It brought much of America’s business world (including the U.S. Postal Service) to a standstill, and the federal government under the orders of President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to Chicago on July 4, 1894. It resulted in violent clashes on the streets of Chicago, and 26 people were killed.
In 1897, George Pullman passed away from a heart attack. His reputation had been ruined by the strike and the resulting loss of life. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that all non-industry related buildings, particularly the residential properties, in Pullman had to be sold from the company. The new president (Robert Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s son) of the company didn’t fight this ruling since running and owning a company town hadn’t been anyone’s dream except for George Pullman.
In 1925, as mentioned, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was organized by labor rights advocate Asa Philip Randolph as the first all-African-American union in the country. When a Pullman rail car was leased to a railroad company, it included the highly-skilled porters that defined luxury rail travel with their hospitality service.
Many of the inaugural porters were ex-slaves hired for cheap labor. Despite being underpaid for demanding, oftentimes demeaning work and suffering discrimination, porters had access to travel the country and provided a vital function to their African-American community. They were highly respected in their community, shared their experiences while disseminating information, for example, distributing black newspapers from cities to rural areas of the South.
It was a long fight and the Brotherhood faced sweeping opposition from the Pullman company, but after more than a decade a collective bargaining agreement was struck and the union won better working conditions and recognition. The Pullman Porters helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement and were a beacon of hope for middle-class mobility.
In 1960, Pullman was threatened with demolition as the Roseland Chamber of Commerce recommended clearing the area from 111th to 115th Streets for an industrial park. A neighborhood WWII Civil Defense Organization was reactivated to fight the demolition. Out of this the Pullman Civic Organization was formed. What is remarkable is that so much of Pullman has survived and still exists intact.
New industries in Pullman
Pullman is on the rise once again as an industrial and innovative neighborhood. A large part of Pullman’s revitalization stems from the Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI). Formed in 2010, the developer group hopes to lead and partner with community stakeholders in economic development and neighborhood projects in Chicago’s low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. They hope to help broker jobs, provide financial resources to entrepreneurs like micro-loans and invest in areas overlooked by private developers. They’ve been key in the long-term revitalization goals of the Pullman neighborhood.
One of the partners is Method which opened a state-of-the-art soap manufacturing plant on the former Ryerson industrial site. Its 150,000-square-foot facility is a LEED certified building and has a wind turbine and solar panels for renewable energy. A third of Method’s employees come from Pullman area zip codes and surrounding South Side neighborhoods.
On the roof of the Method soap manufacturing facility is Gotham Greens. Method helped facilitate the use of 75,000-square-foot rooftop as a greenhouse for its hydroponically grown, local produce. It also provides local jobs and is planning a second greenhouse facility in the Pullman neighborhood.
Whole Foods opened its new 140,000-square-foot distribution center on 16.5 acres adjacent to the Method soap plant at the beginning of 2018.
The Pullman Artspace Lofts is a planned live-work space for local artists. The affordable housing project is a joint project between CNI and Artspace Inc and third partner Pullman Arts. ArtSpace Inc is the nation’s leading non-profit developer of live-work spaces, studios and centers for artists. This joint project will result in 38 units and 2,000 square feet of community space at Langley Avenue and 111th Street and is currently under construction.
Things to do in Pullman
A great place to start your visit is at the Pullman National Monument Visitor Information Center. Open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, there’s no admission fee. There’s a fifteen-minute video, historic photos and exhibits. It’s a great place to figure out whether you’d like to join a guided group tour or strike out on your own walking tour. There are National Park Rangers that can help with any questions you may have.
The National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum was founded in 1995. Named in honor of Asa Philip Randolph and the Pullman Porters who started the first African-American labor union in the country. Under Randolph’s leadership, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won a collective bargaining agreement in their fight for employment equality again the Pullman Rail Car Company. The museum is open Thursday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. but please note they do operate on a winter schedule from December to April where all tours must be pre-arranged.
The folks that live in Pullman really consider the Pullman House Tour a feather in their cap. It occurs the second week of October every year. Sponsored by the Pullman Civic Organization and the Historic Pullman Foundation, residents open their homes to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the weekend. The 45th Annual Historic Pullman House Tour happened October 6 and 7, 2018 but definitely mark your calendar for next year!
The Pullman Civic Organization is an organization that’s comprised of Pullman residents. Their goal is to look after the general welfare of the community as well as preserve its historical significance. As mentioned before, the organization was created in 1960 and saved Pullman from destruction from developers and began the application for historic preservation and landmark status.
The Pullman State Historic Site houses a Pullman Virtual Museum and the Pullman House History Project. The history project documents stories from people that lived or worked in Pullman. The virtual museum has a database of research and archival collections including documents and photos. It also conducts free factory site tours on select dates. It also provides tours of Hotel Florence, but it’s currently closed for renovations.
The Historic Pullman Garden Club was started in 1991 and organizes an annual garden walk every June. The walk features both private and public gardens. They are responsible for maintaining the flower and plant beds in Arcade and Pullman Park, the Rose Garden at the Hotel Florence and the Gateway Garden. The Club hosts a reception for Pullman house tour volunteers every fall and sponsors an annual Victorian Tea.
Pullman Arts is an organization that wants to foster and bolster the community as an arts hub. Pullman historically has been a community that attracted and recruited the best artisans for Pullman’s luxury sleeper cars. Art lives and breathes through the remaining architecture in the homes in the neighborhood. Pullman continues to attract artists from all over and features a Pullman Art Walk during the summer. It is also the third partner with CNI and Artspace for the Pullman Art Space Lofts mentioned earlier.
In case you missed an opportunity to tour the inside of one of Pullman’s buildings, it’s very easy to visit the church he built. It stayed unleaded for quite some time after he built it because the rent was too high and he intended it to be a unitarian church where everyone could worship. It’s currently the Greenstone United Methodist Church. The sanctuary remains mostly unchanged and still houses the original Steere & Turner manual tracker pipe organ. Built in 1882, it is one of the last remaining manual tracker organs in the United States.
The Pullman neighborhood is beautiful with green space and very walkable. There are also bike paths that connect the neighborhood to forest preserves. Arcade Park and Pullman Park are in the center of the historic district and surrounded by stately homes that were designed for Pullman executives. Gately Park, to the north of the historic district, has more than 25 acres and features a multi-purpose club room. To the east, there’s Harborside International Golf Course which is a public course.
Pullman and neighboring Roseland will have access to the largest athletic facility of its kind in the new Pullman Community Center at 10355 S. Woodlawn Avenue. The 135,000 square-foot facility is being built on 12 acres of vacant land donated by the Chicago Neighborhood Initiative, funded by private investments, grants and donations from banks along with many groups including the Chicago Bears and Cubs.
Where to eat and drink in Pullman
George Pullman didn’t want the hassle of running and maintaining taverns in his model, company town and he preferred his workers sober so he didn’t build any watering holes. The Hotel Florence did have a bar but only served upper managers and their guests, not the common worker bees.
Many residents would bring buckets of beer from taverns nearby or buy beer from the time’s version of beer delivery. The goal would be to get the beer back to your house to drink before all of the head of frothy foam on the beer would dissipate!
Modern-day Pullman has two independent cafes where you can eat, and there is a local brewery – but you can’t drink there. The brewery doesn’t have a license for a tap room. So when it comes to dining life or night life, sorry to report there’s not much in Pullman.
The really unique result of lacking restaurants and bars in the neighborhood is that the residents of Pullman do a lot of entertaining at home. There are dinner parties, backyard barbecues and get togethers. Neighbors know one another and open their homes in order to get to know one another. It seems there’s a great sense of community that stems from this aspect of living in Pullman.
The Pullman Cafe was formerly Bob’s Sugar Bowl, a hamburger and soda shop. In 2015, owner Ian Lantz purchased the property from Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives through the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services. Lantz runs the cafe with the help of his aunt and cousin who prefer to stay out of the spotlight.
The Pullman Cafe’s menu features coffee, pastries, salads, sandwiches and pizza. During my visit it seemed the most popular sandwiches included the turkey, roast beef and the Italian. The Caesar salad with roast chicken and homemade dressing was excellent.
Lantz is an Los Angeles transplant that lived in Chicago for a year before discovering and falling in love with Pullman. He moved to the neighborhood in 2012 and became known for his murals on garages and artwork in alleys. You can view an example of this alley artwork next door to the cafe.
Argus Brewery was founded by father and son team Bob and Patrick Jenson in 2009. Located in the historic Joseph E. Schlitz distribution stables, the building housed horses that would distribute Schlitz beer dating back to the early 1900’s. There’s no tap room so the only way you can sample and drink their beers is to sign up for a tour which is only given on Saturdays. When you come for the 90-minute tour, more than likely your guide with be local beer enthusiast Nick Lubovich. He’s an affable guy that loves his neighborhood, beer and is officially titled “historian of Argus Brewery.” As far as beer tours go, I have no doubt that Lubovich makes this one stand out from the others.
Cal-Harbor Diner has been an institution in Pullman for more than 40 years. It’s an old-school diner run by a Greek family and not much of the interior has changed in all its years in the neighborhood. Started by husband and wife owners Pete and Donna Tritsarolis, the diner churns out fresh breakfast, sandwiches, home-made soup and dinner plates. They are famous for their hash browns which are delicate, light and fluffy. They are shredded by hand and sautéed to a crispy finish on the griddle. I am still dreaming about these hash browns.
Pullman rising once again
Pullman is a spectacularly beautiful neighborhood where history is easily accessible, lives in every nook and cranny and greets you around every bend.
Even in our modern era, it’s a neighborhood like you’ve never, ever seen. The architecture is a fascinating lesson in urban planning and it’s thought-provoking. It’s not perfect, there are stretches of row houses on the outer edges that are boarded up, in disrepair and empty. There are empty lots and a lot of opportunity for restaurants, cafes and shops to make their home there for the benefit of its devoted residents.
The neighborhood got me thinking… about its history, corporate America, industry and manufacturing in the past and in our modern era. It seems many of the same problems that Pullman, the man, was trying to circumvent and his inability to relate or compromise when it came to tough times and profit, continue to plague us now.
There were many laudable efforts in theory made by Pullman. Safe, clean housing for his workers sounded like a good idea. And a good home life, makes for a better work life, and vice versa. But he assumed that the common worker would not aspire for more than what a company town had already given and he remained the sole determiner of what was the good, moral standard.
Seeing the lasting legacy of one man’s vision while contemplating its history and thinking about it in a modern context truly makes history come to life while walking around the architecturally rich neighborhood. There are very few modern entrepreneurs who would attempt a vision and dream to such a grand scale.
It’s also heartwarming to see the neighborhood harken back to its manufacturing and innovative roots as a hub for skilled workers, craftsman and artisans as more companies see the value in Pullman and its people.
As with every neighborhood I visit in Chicago, it’s always the people that make it great. The folks that live in Pullman are of a rare sort. They love the history of their neighborhood and embrace the good and bad that go with it. They have fought to preserve, maintain and be custodians of the historic homes and neighborhood they live in with a great sense of pride and duty. There’s a lot to learn from looking at history, and it seems the people of Pullman embrace it in a way we all should.
Additional research for this story by Rubye Lane/ For the Sun-Times