What locales come to mind when you think of America’s national parks?
For many, it's the biggest national parks — the majestic showboaters of the National Park System, the ones iconic enough to boast their own snazzy Pendleton blankets. You know, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the rest of the gang.
While they represent a staggering amount of federally protected wilderness and span the alphabet from A(cadia) to Z(ion), the national parks are just a small fraction — 59 in total — of sites administered by the Department of the Interior's National Park Service. You’ll find green-trousered NPS employees in every state and overseas territory. (Delaware, until very recently, was the only state lacking a National Park Service unit, but Christmas came a bit early to change that statistic.) Rural and urban, massive and modest in size, NPS sites are a diverse bunch including national monuments, national recreation areas, national battlefields, national parkways, national preserves, national heritage areas and more.
In total, there are currently 401 units administered by the National Park Service. As for number 402, there's a good chance it will be a sleepy neighborhood in southeast Chicago that most Windy City visitors (save for rail buffs) tend to overlook.
Welcome to Pullman.
While many of Pullman's historic buildings have been preserved, others are in various states of disrepair. (Photo: Anokarina/Flickr)
Despite being unknown to most Americans outside of Chicago, Pullman is a site with an NPS-worthy pedigree. Established in the 1880s as the first model industrial community in the United States, the historic core of the neighborhood is already a local, state and national landmark. A Congress-bypassing bump up to national park-dom — a bona fide National Historical Park alongside the likes of Valley Forge and Harper's Ferry — seems like the natural next step.
If named as the 402nd unit of the NPS, Pullman would be the first national park within Chicago, a city that Pullman wasn’t even part of until the turn of the century when the town failed and was absorbed into Chicago. Plenty of large American cities are home to oft-overlooked NPS-administered sites — there’s a whole slew of national park sites within New York City that aren’t the Statue of Liberty — but Chicago has long been without one.
Those pushing for the Pullman Historic District to be included in the National Park System believe that the designation would bring new visitors — and much-needed federal funding — to a neighborhood that’s experienced its fair share of hard knocks over the last several decades. Above all, conversion into a national park unit would give those who live, work in and love Pullman the chance to celebrate the neighborhood’s important role in American history, warts and all.
Incorporated into Chicago proper following the 1894 strike, Pullman served as a prime example of welfare capitalism gone sour. (Photo: Richie Diesterheft/Flickr)
Established in 1880 by despotic welfare capitalist and rail tycoon George Pullman, the village of Pullman was a bustling and picturesque company town long before Hershey and Kohler came on the scene. Hailed as the "World's Most Perfect Town" in 1896, Pullman was meticulously planned and tyrannically ruled. While residents enjoyed expansive parks, indoor plumbing, trash collection, theaters and other amenities that were rare at the time, life in the self-contained town was also oppressive. "We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman Hell," reads a popular quote from the time.
Centered around the manufacture of railway sleeper cars — yes, this is the birthplace of the Pullman car — and, later, trolleys and streetcars, Pullman wasn’t just where employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company lived and worked. It’s also where they organized, and eventually revolted.
In 1894, a game-changing (and deadly) two-month-long strike in which Pullman's workforce rallied against wage cuts prompted by the Panic of 1893 guaranteed the town a place in the history books. In the immediate aftermath of the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day as an official federal holiday. The Brotherhood of Sleeper Car Porters, the first African-American-led labor organization to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor, was formed in Pullman in 1925 when the company was at its peak.
And on the topic of books, Pullman’s distinctive architecture played an influential role in Chicago native Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 film adaptation of “The Polar Express.”
Pullman played an important early role in the evolution of urban planning and rail transport along with labor and civil rights. (Photo: NPCA Photos/Flickr)
Annexed into Chicago shortly after the strike and subsequent failure of this industrial utopia, Pullman entered the 21st century as an entirely different creature. Sporting a racially diverse population, pockets of stunning architecture and a strong tradition of grassroots activism, the area is currently experiencing a modest resurgence after decades of rapid decline. New residents and businesses, a notable one being eco-cleaning company Method, have moved into the area. Still, it’s a community lousy with vacant lots and abandoned buildings and burdened by limited services and high levels of unemployment. Although a largely middle-class neighborhood, roughly 20 percent of Pullman residents live below the poverty line. The blight that has come to define much of Pullman won’t be erased anytime soon.
But supporters of transforming Pullman into a National Historical Park believe that if you build it — or in this case, designate it — they will come.
After the release of an NPS reconnaissance survey (pdf) declaring Pullman to be up to historic snuff followed by a highly symbolic visit from National Park Service honcho Jon Jarvis this past August, the push to designate became even stronger, with #NPForPullman supporters making even more noise.
Jon Jarvis, director of the NPS, addresses a packed house in Pullman during an August 2014 visit. (Photo: NPCA Photos/Flickr)
Proclaimed Jarvis during his visit: "If the Pullman Historic District is added to the National Park System, it would allow us to introduce the National Park Service and its role in protecting all American stories to a new community. Reaching new audiences and inviting them to discover the value of all parks is a key goal for the National Park Service as it moves into its second century."
Referring to National Park Service designation as a “savior” for Pullman, the Chicago Tribune explains the importance of Jarvis’ summertime stop-in to the South Side:
Jarvis met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and visited Pullman to listen to residents and take a look around. Jarvis' tour de Pullman was important because he will greatly influence whether President Barack Obama uses his executive authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare Pullman part of the National Park System. If Obama agrees, Pullman finally would get the life preserver it has long sought. Pullman would become a national park and would receive funding and staff in the annual federal budget. That's good news for Pullman supporters, who have tried for decades to bring status and resources to the old rail car community built in the 1880s. The site is already on state and national historic registries. But those designations don't come with a steady stream of revenue. The beautiful Hotel Florence and surrounding buildings in Pullman desperately need repair. The grounds are weed-strewn. Windows are boarded up.
In addition to local supporters, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has put its full support behind the idea, an idea first introduced as legislation by Illinois Sens Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk along with U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly.
Renovated 19th century row houses line the streets of the Pullman Historic District. (Payton Chung/Flickr)
Writes Theresa Pierno of the NPCA in a blog post published by the Huffington Post:
On behalf of our more than 850,000 members and supporters, the National Parks Conservation Association strongly urges the President to use the Antiquities Act to create Chicago's first national park — a designation NPCA has advocated for the last two years. As we look to the 2016 centennial celebration of our National Park System, diversifying our national parks to more adequately reflect our shared history and cultural heritage, and connecting urban populations to our national parks are important goals that the National Parks Conservation Association shares with the administration and the National Park Service.
The designation of sites like Pullman help ensure that America's best idea — the National Park System — keeps getting better at fully telling our shared stories, now and for generations to come.
Pierno also cites an economic report conducted by the NPCA, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives that finds an NPS-minted Pullman to be incredibly beneficial to the surrounding community: “… by its 10th year of full operation, a national park at Pullman is expected to attract more than 300,000 visitors each year, create 350 jobs annually, $15 million in annual wages, and sustain $40 million in economic activity, mostly due to visitor spending."
Persevering through decades of ups and downs, Pullman maintains a strong tradition of grassroots activism. (Photo: NPCA Photos/Flickr)
There is, of course, a number of Chicagoans who believe that a dramatic neighborhood renaissance brought on by the inclusion of Pullman's 12-block historic district into the National Park System to be exceedingly quixotic. Will NPS passport-carrying tourists even bother visiting a historically significant area that’s a bit rough around the edges? Will national park designation reverse Pullman’s struggles? Will the people come?
It’s not that these detractors necessarily want Pullman to fail or that they doubt Pullman has what it takes in the historical significance department. Many do, however, have doubts about the NPS’s ability to fully save a community by stimulating economic activity via tourist-filled coach buses.
Writes Steve Stanek for Crain’s: "Have you ever been to the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois? It's one of the poorest areas of the state. Yellowstone is America's greatest national park, but it's hardly a bastion of economic power and prosperity. Creating a national park doesn't guarantee sudden wealth. Where there is lots of wealth in or near a national park, nearly all of it would be there without the park."
Given that Obama has yet to give the legislation his full blessing (no doubt he will), it’s unclear as to when the Pullman Historic District will be upgraded to the nation’s newest national park. It could take a while. It could be tomorrow.
In the meantime, it’s worth seeking out some of the low-key gems that have joined the ranks of the National Park System during the Obama administration: Cesar E. Chavez National Monument (California), The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument (Maryland), Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument (Ohio) and Fort Monroe National Monument (Virginia). What they lack in unfettered natural beauty, these evocative places make up for in top-notch storytelling. And while the stories at hand might not always be pretty, they're stories that deserve the chance to be heard. They are, after all, our stories.
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