2 nov 16 | Chicago Reader

Transforming Pullman into a National Park

by Aimee Levitt

The Positioning Pullman project aims to ease the south-side neighborhood’s transition.

Back in the 1880s, railroad magnate George Pullman became a pioneer urban planner of sorts when he decided to design and build a model town where his employees could live and build railway cars without having to face the crime and temptations of the city or a long commute. With the help of architect Solon Spencer Beman and landscape architect Nathan F. Barrett, he created an entire town from scratch on 300 acres near Lake Calumet, just south of what was then Chicago's southern border.

Now, nearly 150 years later, Pullman, which has since been absorbed by the city of Chicago, continues to be a model for urban development. In February 2015, President Obama designated the neighborhood a national monument and entrusted it to the National Park Service.

"Most large-scale spaces are already part of the National Park system and are receiving stewardship and care," says Richard Wilson, the city design director at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. "We're realizing there are other things that are too important to be torn down. Those should become urban national parks. Pullman will be the first ever."

Before the national monument designation, Pullman had about 15,000 visitors per year. In ten years, that number's expected to rise to 300,000. "Right now it's a working Chicago neighborhood," Wilson says. "People are sitting in their kitchens and living rooms and tourists are walking down the street. Now it's embraced, but if it's not managed, that might change. For a south-side neighborhood with limited new industry and jobs, that's a real question. There's some optimism, but we need to ask what the national park designation means."

Wilson is the leader of Positioning Pullman, a group of architects, engineers, landscape designers, city planners, economists, preservationists, and Pullman residents working together to ease the neighborhood's transition into a national park without destroying it as a place to live. He'll be discussing the project in a panel at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 6 with Mark J. Bouman, Chicago region program director of the Field Museum's Keller Science Action Center, and Lynn McClure, midwest director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Pullman is a fine and well-preserved example of Victorian architecture and city planning, Wilson says, but what really makes it worthy of its national monument designation is its history. In 1894, it was the site of a major labor strike after Pullman reduced his workers' wages without a comparable reduction in rents. A government injunction forced the laborers to go back to work, but as compensation (of sorts), Congress established Labor Day. Decades later, in 1937, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters there. It was the first African-American union.

A comprehensive city plan threatened to demolish Pullman in 1960 and turn the site into an industrial park. The residents fought back and saved their neighborhood. For 50 years now, they've continued to fight to preserve it. "It's a beautiful story," Wilson says. Positioning Pullman wants to honor that history, not by freezing the neighborhood in the past, but by making it a living part of Chicago. So while its two-year strategic plan does involve historic preservation and restoration—some of it based on old photos of Pullman from its glory days as a company town—it also involves retail and industrial development, in addition to better integration of Pullman into the city's public transportation system and the network of bike and hiking trails that stretches from Bronzeville to the Indiana Dunes. The project has enlisted the cooperation of the Illinois, Indiana, and Chicago governments, as well as CTA and Metra.

Already Method soap has set up a factory near Pullman and intends to hire workers from the neighborhood; it also built, on its rooftop, the largest commercial greenhouse in the U.S., which it rents out to farmers. A Walmart has also opened in the neighborhood, and so has a Whole Foods distribution center that was lured away from Indiana.

Wilson hadn't spent much time in Pullman before he joined the Positioning Pullman team, but he's become one of its most vocal advocates. He worries he sometimes comes off as "goopy," but his love and admiration for the neighborhood are apparent. "When I started to understand the story, I thought, 'Oh, my God. We can't tear down special places. We can't tear down our history or heritage. If we do, what kind of people are we?' "

He acknowledges that Pullman's location has been a definite advantage; had it been located on the north side or closer to downtown, it might not be here today. He also recognizes that it can be a model for civic policy and preservation for the rest of the country.

"Pullman has planted the seed for industrial innovation and growth throughout the Illinois-northwest Indiana corridor," he continues. "There's a heartbeat down there, an environmentally conscious, work-oriented heartbeat."