Posted on: February 8 2012

Can Pullman’s Planned Community Become Chicago’s First National Park?

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By Lynn McClure, Director of NPCA’s Midwest Regional Office

Picture this: Big city expressways and a network of train tracks lined with industry, businesses, city buildings, and schools—for miles. Then, out of the landscape rises a giant clock tower. This is your first glimpse of the Historic Pullman District on Chicago’s South Side.

The Pullman District is on the National Register of Historic Places, so it is already considered a significant piece of American history worthy of preserving. Now, thanks to a special resource study bill introduced last Friday by Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., it could become Chicago’s first national park—and only the second national park in the state of Illinois.

The neighborhood tells the stories of luxury railroad sleeper car entrepreneur George M. Pullman and the rise of the modern labor movement, including the formation of the first African-American labor union and the first industrial planned community in the 1880s. Pullman envisioned a utopian town where his employees could live and work that was a stark contrast to the overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions common at that time. He built a factory, brick row houses for workers complete with gas and running water, a large hotel, churches, a market square, and an indoor shopping area. Most of the 1,300 original structures are still standing today.

Unfortunately, Pullman’s dream of a model town failed. His heavy-handed approach to governing the town was very unpopular with workers. As railroad business declined, Pullman cut jobs, wages, and hours. Workers retaliated with a strike that spread nationwide and eventually turned violent, with protestors burning Pullman railroad cars.

The Historic Pullman District marks an important piece of American history and helps tell the story of African-American history and the labor movement in this country. And since the site is just 15 miles south of downtown Chicago, Pullman could become one of the very few “commutable” national parks. Countless families and schoolchildren could have their first national park experience for the price of a train ticket.

This study is just the first step, but it’s an important one, and one that I believe will reaffirm Pullman’s significance as we approach the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. The people of Chicago are ready for a national park. As Congressman Jackson said: “This could become the Grand Canyon of the South Side!”

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