50 Wards in 50 Weekdays: 9th Ward’s Carolyn Lewis says historic Pullman’s residents won't let it decline

July 13, 2012

(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Carolyn Lewis walks to the bus in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood on the Far South Side.

Carolyn Lewis and I are walking briskly through the Pullman neighborhood’s historically preserved southern end. Lewis has got a bus to catch for work, but is willing to give me the basics.

“Basically, it’s an old established neighborhood,” she says. “The guy who built the Pullman railroad [cars], he built the neighborhood up.”

Pullman was a factory town, the late 19th Century vision of George Pullman. It has city, state and national landmark status. There are tourists walking around with neighborhood maps, and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., wants to make it part of the National Park Service.

You can read all about its past here, but Lewis is going to tell us about its present.

“It’s a beautiful neighborhood. And I think they keep it up very well. It’s not as kept up as it used to be, but I think they trying to get back to that. Because when I first came over here, it was gorgeous. Especially the park,” she says. “The park was beautiful.”

The park is still nice, though – like just about every lawn in the region that’s not meticulously watered – it’s got severe summer yellowing.

Lewis, 63, moved from suburban Maywood to this Far South Side neighborhood “going on 7 years” ago to live with her sister, who owns a beautiful Pullman row house.

She likes the area, but talks about it as an outsider. Lewis uses “they” to describe residents who’ve been there a long time. For example, when she talks about how the neighborhood has hardly any restaurants or businesses nearby:

“I think that’s another reason why the neighborhood’s not growing like they thought the neighborhood was going to grow. See, [because], they thought this was going to be another Oak Park or Hyde Park, I think.”

It was those long-termers who stepped up a while back when the area faced some challenges.

“You [saw] little different things that was happening,” Lewis says. “They say people’s houses was being broken in to. A couple times you see characters that didn’t look like they was supposed to be where they was supposed to be. I mean little things. Then all of a sudden you didn’t hear about it anymore.”

There were community meetings – Lewis’ sister attended – with local officials and police.

“I think the neighborhood kicked in and said they weren’t going to let it happen,” she says. “The residents just wasn’t going to put up with it. And I think that was the big difference.”

Lewis’ bus stop is right in front of the old Pullman factory complex, just north of 111th. From there, she takes the Pullman bus to the 95th Street Red Line station. She’ll take the train to Chicago and State, a short hop from her job.

“I’m a housekeeper at Northwestern Hospital,” she says. “Downtown, that’s right.”

And it’s this commute that leads to Lewis’ only big complaint about where she lives: transportation.

“From the time I moved here up to now, I noticed the transportation has gotten worse and worse and worse.”

And it is only going to get worse, she predicts, next year when the CTA shuts down the southern half of the Red Line for 5 months for repairs. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have promised to boost bus service to blunt the inconvenience. Lewis, it appears, is unconvinced.

“You just want us to put up with the fact that you all [put] a band aid on the problem for years and years and years. And now that you can’t do that anymore, shut it down. Heck with the customers,” she says. “That’s going to make me have to go all around the world just to get to work. [And] all around the world to get back home.”

Lewis thinks the closed Red Line will lengthen a commute that’s barely manageable as is, thanks in part to delayed buses.

“I have to walk through this park,” she continues. “Would [city officials] want their mothers [to] walk through a park at 11-something at night?”

“Lately, I’ve noticed there’s not a lot of light around the park. So I have to call somebody on the phone as I walk home.”

But it could be worse. Pullman is generally safe, she says.

“If I was [living] anywhere else, I would even be scared to do that.”