Will Pullman ever be revitalized?

A post-industrial neighborhood considers whether to market its history ... or start a Pullman 2.0

June 18, 2013

(Photo courtesy of the Historic Pullman Foundation)
Pullman factory and neighborhood from an aerial photograph taken in 1946.

We have a lot of shorthand ways to talk about Chicago.

Boosters call it the “city that works” (a phrase coined by the late Arlington Heights writer Frank Maier, or maybe his editor). Detractors gave the city perhaps its most famous — and its most vexing — identity as the “second city.”

For longtime residents though, I’d wager Chicago is most a “city of neighborhoods,” an identity Curious City has looked into.

But not every neighborhood gets the same love or foot traffic, and that fact got Hannah Loftus thinking.

Loftus grew up in Glen Ellyn and is, as of this writing, a newly-minted graduate of the University of Chicago. (Congrats, Hannah!) While earning her anthropology degree, Loftus made field trips to Pullman, a historic neighborhood that hugs the Bishop Ford Expressway south of 95th Street.

Those visits prompted her to ask Curious City:

Will Pullman ever be revitalized?

Loftus’ question came from a big discrepancy she observed, one that’s dogged Pullman residents for decades: Pullman’s history is vast and rich, but today it struggles from a lack of jobs and amenities.

Visible history

If you’re not familiar with the history Loftus caught on to, here’s a brief sketch.

Starting in 1880, industrialist George Pullman had a whole town built from scratch, to house workers at his Pullman Palace Car Company, which was churning out a new mode of rail travel: luxury sleeping cars. His town of Pullman was an early example of a planned community, one so striking it was voted the most perfect town in the world, at the Prague International Hygienic and Pharmaceutical Exposition of 1896.

But Pullman’s town didn’t draw attention just because of its layout and industry — the workers were notable, too. The nation’s first black labor union has its roots here, and a strike started by Pullman workers became one of history’s most violent labor contests.

Today, some of this past is still visible.

Ninety-eight percent of the town’s original housing stock, which ranges from practical row houses to stately mansions, still stands. If you combine that with what’s left of a factory complex as well as the historic Hotel Florence, a walk through Pullman can feel like wandering into a 19th century town.

Still, Pullman is not on everybody’s radar.

“It’s good to have this history,” says Loftus. “But it’s not quite something you think about when you consider the overall history of Chicago.”

In addition to its low profile, Loftus notes that Pullman also lacks basic resources, like grocery stores and jobs.

Now some residents I talked to questioned whether Pullman needs to be revitalized at all (they gave variations of “What’s wrong with our community the way it is?”). But for many years community groups and aldermen have worked hard to develop the neighborhood.

For them the debate’s been more about how — and not whether — to revitalize.

History as resource?

As ironic as this may sound, some are convinced Pullman’s past is the big money maker.

Take Michael Shymanski. Officially, he’s an architect and the President of the Historic Pullman Foundation. Unofficially, many call him the mayor of Pullman.

To get a better idea of Shymanski’s vision, I tour the neighborhood with him. Turns out that vision draws from the design elements of the original town.

Pullman wanted a worker’s utopia that he — the big boss — would control. He hired Solon Spencer Beman to design the community and factory complex (other still-existing Chicago structures by Beman include the Blackstone Library and the Fine Arts Building). Nathan F. Barrett developed the town’s landscapes.

Shymanski says everything was oriented toward the railroad and making a grand impression upon train passengers. The main administrative building with its large clock tower was situated directly across from the train station. It was set back and preceded by a curvilinear drive and Lake Vista, a large reflecting pond that happened to fed by condensation collected from the huge Corliss engine that powered the Pullman machinery.

George Pullman constructed other facilities, too, including a church, a central market, and an arcade that housed a 500-seat theatre, a library, a post office and small shops for tailors and dentists.

“Even today it’s a model for pedestrian-scale development,” says Shymanski. “People could walk to all their normal activities within 10 minutes or so. They could get produce at Market Hall. There were all kinds of recreation activities along the edge of Lake Calumet. They could walk to work and were just a few steps from a train station that would take them downtown.”

The decline

There’s not as much to walk to today.

Pullman’s dream of a model community evaporated, thanks to a crippling recession and the resulting workers strike (Pullman cut the workforce and wages, but kept charging the same rents). In 1898, Pullman was ordered to sell off non-factory property, including all the residential buildings (Chicago had annexed Pullman previously, in 1889). Though the factory kept manufacturing cars until the late 1970’s, the area went through some major changes.

Through destruction or decay, some of the key infrastructure is gone. The Arcade Building was torn down in 1927, rendered obsolete by newer shopping areas. After multiple fires and a 1930s makeover, Market Hall is mainly a shell of brick and girders, though the original apartment buildings that form the square around the hall remain.

The main administration building and clock tower, damaged by arson in 1998, have undergone some restoration and stabilization, but they’re cordoned off behind a chain link fence.

What’s left? In addition to the residences, the Greenstone Church remains sturdy, and there’s the Hotel Florence, which is currently being restored by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

That any of this remains has much to do with the various historic designations Pullman has earned over the years.

In the 1960s there was an effort to raze Pullman and turn it into an industrial park. A civic group formed to fight this move, and since then the neighborhood has been granted local, state and federal landmark status.

The drive for a park

Despite its historic designations, Pullman hasn’t yet figured out how to cash in on its past.

The Pullman Historic Foundation runs a visitors center, conducts tours and hosts events. The state offers regular tours and some interpretation of the (largely empty) factory building.

In the northern part of the district you can also visit the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which tells the story of how Pullman porters, who were all African American, became the first black union in the United States.  

But most of this history isn’t tied together, and when visitors do come, they don’t find much in the way of permanent programming, or even a dedicated gift shop to buy historic Pullman souvenirs.

So to draw more tourists and help revive Pullman’s local economy, many Pullman boosters are trying to turn the area into a national historical park.

The idea was proposed in early 2012 by former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. who asked the Secretary of the Interior to undertake a “reconnaissance study” of Pullman.

The National Park Service agreed. And according to Lynn McClure of the National Parks Conservation Association, the report — which, they say, should be out any day — is a “high five” for making Pullman a national park.

Now all that’s required is congressional approval. Though Congress isn’t known for acting swiftly, McClure is confident.

“There’s no reason we can’t get it done by the end of 2014,” he says.

What would park status bring?

Pullman currently has some tourism traffic, but not a lot.

Mike Wagenbach of the State Historic Site says the neighborhood draws between 25,000 and 35,000 visitors each year. That’s a drop in the bucket when you consider Chicago saw 46.2 million visitors last year.

No doubt Pullman’s low turnout has something to do with its location; though the neighborhood is just off a major freeway to its east, it’s still 10 miles from the Loop. And that means it’s far off the tourism industry’s beaten path.

Lynn McClure says “nobody is naive enough to think that [a park] would significantly increase tourism,” but her office recently undertook an economic study to determine what effect such a designation might have on the area.

It turns out the idea of using a national park to generate economic activity has precedent.

In 1978, Lowell Massachusetts, once a significant player in America’s historic textile industry, was turned into a park. Thirty years later, a study assessing its impact said the park acted as a catalyst, attracting and even speeding up investment.

Mike Shymanski says if Pullman were a national park, with lots of interpretation and tourism infrastructure, it would draw more people and give them somewhere to spend their money.

And that cash — the theory goes — could help revitalize Pullman.

“The current purchasing power in the neighborhood can’t sustain redevelopment,” says Shymanski, “But if we had 100,000 or 200,000 visitors coming a year, we could.”

Pullman 2.0

Still, not everyone is banking on Pullman’s past.

“Certainly the historic parts are important and we want to be sensitive to that,” says David Doig, president of the non-profit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. “But unless it’s a desirable community with all the amenities that people expect, you know people aren’t going to want to live there.”

To make a point about Pullman’s future, Doig takes me up to the 11th floor of the U.S. Bank Building, his base of operations. There, we have a birds-eye view of a 180-acre construction site and the future home of a development called Pullman Park.

CNI is doing a lot to revitalize Pullman — everything from backing an artists space to rehabbing historic homes — but Pullman Park is their biggest and maybe most ambitious effort.

The mixed-use development underway at 111th Street and the Bishop Ford Freeway will sport a Walmart store (slated to open this fall), as well 1,000 units of housing, a recreation facility and park areas. There are also plans for pedestrian-scale retail.

Put all this together, and you see Doig’s creating a Pullman 2.0.

It may be a scaled-down version of George Pullman’s all-encompassing community, but it’s one that would provide what locals say the neighborhood now lacks: retail spaces, jobs, affordable housing and community facilities. Fittingly, this new community would sit atop part of Pullman’s former factory complex (Ryerson Steel Processing Inc., bought part of the plant in the late 1980s, but shut it down in 2006.)

Doig says his development and other efforts to revitalize historic Pullman are “not competing but complementary.”

“We really view this as kind of a catalyst for what we hope will be other forms of private investment and revitalization in the broader community,” he says.

So what are the prospects for Pullman?

Mike Shymanski thinks things bode well for a true revitalization, despite all the years of investment that haven’t yet made a difference.

“Eventually, good ideas have their celestial order that makes them happen,” says Shymanski. “And I think we’re very close to that.”

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

Special thanks to the Historic Pullman Foundation, which gave Alison Cuddy permission to use several images posted here. You can find more at the organization's Facebook page and website.