by Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Vendor Ed Cephus says he likes President Obama’s declaration of the Pullman neighborhood as a National Monument “because it will bring an increase in visitors who are non-African-American, they will be comfortable enough to come because of making it a National Monument.”
Cephus lives just four blocks away from Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, 250 E. 111th St., where on February 19 Obama named three National Monuments: Browns Canyon in Colorado, the former Honouliuli WWII Japanese internment camp and Pullman, “a milestone in our journey to a more perfect union.
“It is right that we think of our National Monuments as these amazing vistas, but part of what we’re preserving is history,” Obama said to students, media and officials including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rahner. “We want this younger generation and future generations to learn about this past.”
George M. Pullman created the efficient planned community in the 1880s for workers at his plant, which built railroad passenger cars with pull-down beds for overnight travel. Pullman “lived out the American promise that each of us can transcend the circumstances of our birth,” Obama said, but “tycoons of the Gilded Age weren’t always so keen on making sure workers lived out that promise.”
During an economic depression in 1893-94, Pullman slashed worker pay but he refused to reduce rents on housing that he owned, Obama said. In order to offset losses to investors amid declining orders, Pullman reduced wages to $16 a month and rents to $14, according to the Chicago History Museum and Encyclopedia Online.
In May 1894, 90 percent of Pullman workers struck the plant and railroad workers from across the nation joined them. Because the railroads carried U.S. mail, federal troops were called in, several workers were killed and the strike ended in July.
“But the idea of collective bargaining could not be silenced,” Obama told the Gwendolyn Brooks audience. Six days after the strike ended, Congress proclaimed Labor Day and “gradually our country would have the protections we now take for granted: the weekend, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, the right to organize.
“So this site is at the heart of what would become America’s labor movement, what would become America’s middle class. Bit by bit we expanded that promise to more Americans. But too many still stood on the edge of the dream.”
The porters who were employed on Pullman cars to make beds and shine shoes made just a few dollars for a 20-hour day “and were told if they demanded better conditions they would be fired,” Obama said. Then in 1925, A. Philip Randolph told a packed meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in Harlem that “if they stood firm and held their ground,” they would win.
Twelve years later, Pullman became the first large company in the U.S. to recognize a union of black workers, “one of the first great victories in what would become the civil rights movement,” Obama said.
The porters became “the bedrock of the new middle class,” and the great-granddaughter of one of them had the chance to go to an elite college and law school and to work for the mayor. “I know that because she is the First Lady of the United States of America. Without this place, Michele wouldn’t be where she is.
“So to the young people here today, that’s what I hope you take away from this place….The places that look ordinary are extraordinary. The places where you live can be extraordinary. Not that life will always be fair or America will always live up to its ideals. But you stand on the shoulders of giants. You can initiate great movements.”
The Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) welcomed the President’s actions to make the story of Pullman Palace Car workers and Pullman porters a part of national heritage “at a time when honoring the struggles of all working people to keep a vibrant middle class is needed more than ever.”
ILHS President Larry Spivack agreed with Obama regarding the role the National Park Service plays in telling the story of America. Pullman can use the economic stimulus that National Monument status will bring, Spivack said in an email, and Chicago is uniquely suited to the task.
“The Chicago area is richest in the nation with respect to the rich diversity of race, immigration, and workers’ struggles to win decent working conditions, and the relationship to the industries in which they worked,” Spivack wrote. “In telling this story we can teach current and future generations how we became such a great city and such a great nation. With National Park status the Pullman community will be history’s greatest teacher in an urban environment.”
The President can proclaim a National Monument using the Antiquities Act to preserve lands of historic, scenic or scientific significance from commercial development or looting, according to the website of the National Parks Conservation Association. President Obama has diversified the National Park system through the additions of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad site on Maryland’s eastern shore and Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers headquarters in Keene, CA.
Pullman’s pride was always its city planning and its 19th century architecture. Threats of turning it into an industrial park in the 1960s led residents to activate the WWII-era Pullman Civic Organization, to prevent its destruction. National Historic Landmark status followed in 1970 and in the next few years, the non-profit Historic Pullman Foundation purchased some key buildings; homeowners rehabbed their homes with the help of the PCO.
“It’s the most diverse community, racially, economically, across the board: people with financial problems next door to those with a lot of money. You can’t leave the house without saying ‘Hi’ to several people,” said Jane Bushwaller, who has lived there for 42 years with her architect husband Robert, a member of the Historic Pullman Foundation board who has rehabbed several homes. Her husband was with the President but Bushwaller was at a reception for neighborhood residents at the Historic Pullman Foundation Visitors Center, 11141 S. Cottage Grove; she was savoring the announcement “because of all the hard work that happened here.”
“You said Pullman is special in terms of labor, civil rights, industrialization, taking care of workers and not taking care of workers. You worked hard and the President used his pen to make it happen,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told the diverse crowd of elated neighborhood residents at the visitors’ center reception.
The Pullman site extends from 103rd to 115th Streets along Cottage Grove and the Metra railroad tracks. Jewell said the only building the National Park Service will own is the Clock Tower, “a little bit of a fixer-upper,” just north of 111th Street. The landmark was damaged in a 1998 arson fire and stabilized at a cost of $3.4 million.
The Pullman Company continued to make railroad cars at the site until 1969, when Amtrak took over until 1982. The state of Illinois owns remaining factory buildings and the Hotel Florence, named for Pullman’s daughter, which is adjacent to the visitor’s center. The 1880s row houses are individually owned, because at the turn of the 19th century the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the Pullman Company to divest them.
The new National Monument will receive a line item in the fiscal 2017 budget but in the meantime, $8 million in donations will go toward making the Clock Tower the permanent visitor center, said Patricia Trap, acting Midwest regional director of the National Park Service. Donors included the Union Pacific Foundation, the Pritzker-Traubert Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the David Hiller Charitable Fund and individual members of the National Parks Foundation.
Trap said she would be shifting a National Parks Service staff member from the Indiana Dunes site to Pullman the next day, when she would also be signing an agreement with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
“The way of the future,” Trap said, would be “partnership parks, establishing agreements with partners to do things on sites, leveraging our resources to bring the story alive. It shouldn’t be all federal or all state money. You can tell people here [care] about their story.”
On its first day in operation, the Pullman National Monument had already awarded its first ranger badge. It had an information brochure printed and its website and social media in place, National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told the reception crowd. Jarvis recalled the warmth of a community meeting last August and said, “the National Park Service is excited to be a part of this.”
The next 18 months to two years, according to Historic Pullman Foundation President Michael Shymanski, will be spent planning the content of the visitors’ center. “There are a half-dozen big stories that are part of Pullman history, everything from the development of the transcontinental railroad to the development of passenger travel, the building of the town, the development of Pullman systems, the labor strike, town planning as well as the Pullman porters and their role in the civil rights movement.”
Shymanski sees Pullman’s Clock Tower as crucial to engaging children in railroading because in the movie “Polar Express,” it was the model for the tower from which Santa’s sleigh emerged. Polar Express writer/director Robert Zemeckis grew up in the nearby Roseland neighborhood. The state of Illinois also has a Pullman car used by Robert Todd Lincoln – President Lincoln’s son – when he was president of the Pullman Company, Shymanski said.
Dr. Lyn Hughes founded the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum at 10406 S. Maryland Ave. 20 years ago. Hughes said she expects increased traffic from the National Monument status.
Hughes would like to expand the museum because it is the caretaker of so many artifacts given by Pullman porters’ descendants: time cards, cufflinks, keys, sets of buttons. Its registry of these former employees between 1865 and 1969 numbers 4,000 and will soon become an online searchable database, thanks to DePaul University.
She is protective of the museum’s role in telling the porters’ specific labor story. Few people realize, for example, that the Pullman porters were educated people working at the best job they could get during their era. Moreover, as they took care of diverse rail passengers – oilmen, newspapermen, insurance and stockbrokers – they were privy to information and tips that far outweighed their salaries. They took this money home and dumped it on the table in front of their families, parceling out money for each child’s education and for businesses they created on the side.
Use of the blanket term “black labor history” at the Pullman historic site does cause Hughes to worry that “it leaves the door open for someone bigger and stronger to gobble up that niche that took us 20 years to create.” Just the same, she said that the National Park Service “has the ability, capacity and level of sensitivity to be the needle that is threading all these multiple partners.”
National Monument status for Pullman will mean $40 million annually in revenue to the community and 300 hospitality jobs, said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th ward) at the visitors’ center reception. Beale has worked closely with Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, (CNI) a non-profit offshoot of U.S. Bank, as well as Mercy Housing and the Historic Pullman Foundation. Three public workshops and 65 community meetings led to a Super Walmart at 111th and the I-94 Bishop Ford Expressway, followed by Ross clothing, Planet Fitness and Dollar Tree – for roughly 650 retail jobs, according to CNI President David Doig.
Another 100 jobs are coming with the LEED Platinum certified manufacturing plant for Method eco-friendly soap and its eco-cleaning brand, Ecover. Located due west of Walmart and powered by a wind turbine, the Method plant has leased 75,000 square feet of space on its rooftop to Gotham Greens, which will start to produce lettuce, arugula, basil, kale and chard in April for another 40 or 50 jobs, Doig said.
CNI has also redeveloped almost 50 homes, especially the distinctive Pullman rowhouses between 103rd and 107th, an area which has suffered more disinvestment than the area north of 111th Street, Doig said. The non-profit has also done microloans to catering companies, Uber drivers and day care providers. Next up is a 135,000 square foot indoor recreation facility at 103rd and Woodlawn, expected to open late this year or early next.
The comprehensiveness of its redevelopment won CNI the Chicago Community Trust’s Outstanding Community Strategy of the Year Award at the 21st annual Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDAs) February 17 sponsored by LISC Chicago. And on the day of the Pullman National Monument announcement, Doig told StreetWise that CNI was talking to both Marriott and Holiday Inn Express about a possible hotel on 111th Street in the next 18 months. A little farther down the road, the Hotel Florence could open as a bed and breakfast, he said.
Pullman is part affordable housing and part artists’ colony, which “could hit overdrive” with National Monument status, according to the CNDA awards brochure. This language could evoke fears of gentrification — but not to Melva Jean Tate, founder of The House of Chloe Inc. at 10701-03 S. Champlain Ave.
The House of Chloe is a 501c3 food pantry that assists 900 individuals monthly and offers free breakfast and lunch during the summer. It also started an “artists in the garden” program for mentally challenged children.
“Now we will have something to feed them into, it will serve as a resource,” Tate said of the artists’ colony concept. “Everyone has a role, we just stick in our own little niche to make it go forward.”