A Chicago neighborhood that takes its name from an American icon and played a key role in the industrial revolution, the organized labor movement and the nation's struggle for civil rights will have its place in history marked with a national monument.
Pullman, a south Chicago neighborhood that began in the 1880s as company housing for the Pullman Palace Car Co., the railcar manufacturing company that revolutionized travel in America, has been named a National Park. The federal government has designated the neighborhood a national historical park and commissioned the Pullman National Monument to memorialize the historical significance of the neighborhood of approximately 7,000 people, some of whom worked as train porters and maids or in the plant that churned out thousands of cars used for everything from luxury travel across the country to subway service in America's biggest cities.
"We were enthusiastically supported to come and work with this community and tell the story," said Jon Jarvis, service director of the National Park Service. "It’s a great day for the community and a great day for the Park Service."
"I can't explain what Pullman means to me, in my heart. We have a bond."
Rail magnate George Pullman started the neighborhood around his manufacturing plant to serve as housing for his workers. The 203-acre "company town" featured tenements, churches and even schools for the thousands of workers and their families who would toil making and working on so-called "Pullman cars." Thousands were newly emancipated African-Americans who moved up from the South and found a willing employer in Pullman. But the place the tycoon, who died in 1897, occupies in both the labor and civil rights movements is steeped in controversy, despite what may have been progressive hiring practices for the times.
The Pullman Palace Car Co., which over it century in existence was known by a strong of variations, all bearing the name of its founder, was the site of a seminal labor dispute clash between African-American workers and George Pullman. Historians say the railroad strike of 1894 helped pave the way for civil rights and unions. In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters formed and was recognized as the first labor union led by African Americans.
Chicago bought the town from Pullman in the 1890s, and the neighborhood became officially incorporated into the Windy City. It has remained a primarily African-American neighborhood, with many longtime residents recalling firsthand the days before Pullman Company, as it was last known, turned out its last subway cars for Chicago, New York and Boston in the 1980s.
“It’s a fantastic place and I’m glad to be born and raised here and that my mother was born and raised here," said Marilyn Gartelmann Quiroz, 74. "She came from a very poor family, but we raised ourselves up,”
Quiroz and her husband of 50 years, Al, joke they are third generation “Pullmanites.” Her mother was born in one of the blockhouses in Pullman, the same building that Quiroz’s husband would later be born in. Her father and her father’s uncle worked at Pullman, and her father’s uncle moved through the ranks from the bottom of the company to become a plant manager.
Quiroz, 74, who now works as a switchboard operator at Columbia College, said the community was always proud of their working-class backgrounds. She said her husband and brother-in-law, who worked at the plant until it closed, have been ecstatic over the news of the Pullman National Monument.
“The two of them are walking around like they’re going to bust they’re so happy and so full of pride for the neighborhood,” she said.
The landmark site will be roughly 15 blocks long and about five blocks wide, Jarvis said. But don’t expect to see employees dressed in late 1800 or early 1900 dress. The point of the monument is to bring attention to the history of the area and celebrate the community already established.
“People live here, it’s not like we’ll freeze it in time," Jarvis said. "This is a living, breathing community.”
Jarvis said the Park Service’s next step is to plan how the visitor center will be designed inside the six-story clock tower that loomed for decades above the plant. They’d like to include a welcome center, museum, educational classrooms, a theater, and other features typical for a National Park Site. The National Parks is being gifted a vintage, mint condition Pullman Palace Car to show visitors exactly what one of the rail cars looked like.
Jarvis said the planning phase will take about six to eight months and construction another two and a half years. He believes the site will be ready in about three years. Although the neighborhood suffered after the Pullman Company went out of business, there are hopeful signs.
“There’s a revitalization going on here and it’s the perfect time for the National Park Service to join in,” said Jarvis.
The National Park Foundation announced the Pullman National Monument has already received $8 million in donations to help establish a visitor center and to fund programming.
Jarvis says it’s a very significant chunk of the money needed for construction. According to a spokeswoman for the National Park Foundation, the $8M is great down payment for the infrastructure and programming needs. Due to the condition of the buildings at the site, a lot of work will need to be done to be able to handle visitors. And more donations will be needed to finish everything.
Refurbishing the Clock Tower, which will become the visitor’s center for the new national monument, will be a major expense. The building burned in the 1990s, was redeveloped by the state of Illinois, but remains vacant.
“It’s a big empty shell,” said Jarvis.
Quiroz said she can’t wait to see the Clock Tower restored. Even more, she longs to see the Hotel Florence, named after George Pullman’s daughter, up and running again.
“I’d like to see them put a little effort into the hotel. We had such good times working there, it was a block from home, who could complain?” said Quiroz.
Quiroz worked in the hotel for 14 years, before it was shut down.
“I can’t explain what Pullman means to me, in my heart," Quiroz said. "We have a bond."