Obama To Declare Pullman Neighborhood A National Monument

CHICAGO (CBS) — President Barack Obama will visit Chicago next week to designate the historic Pullman neighborhood – one of the first “company towns” in the U.S. – as a national monument.

Pullman was home to railroad baron George Pullman’s factory town in the 1880s, homes, shopping areas, churches, theaters, a hotel, a library, and other amenities for his workforce at Pullman Palace Car Co., which made sleeper cars for railroads.

Obama got his start in politics as a community organizer, meeting frequently at a McDonald’s just a few blocks from the Pullman factory, and he’s familiar with the history and architecture that made the area a candidate for national monument status.

The president will visit Pullman on Feb. 19 to announce the designation of the neighborhood as a national monument. It will be the first time a unit of the National Park system has been established in Chicago. Illinois has only one other national park, the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield.

“We think it’s thrilling and exciting, because it’s a culmination of 50 years of grassroots efforts, and we worked very hard to preserve this fabric and this place to tell these great stories of American history” said Mike Shymanski, president of the Historic Pullman Foundation.

He said the architecture of Pullman’s company town has proved durable, and is still functional 130 years later.

“When you come here, you have a very strong sense of place, in that the architecture’s all very similar. You know that you’re in a special place,” Shymanski said.

Alfonso Quiroz, a lifelong Pullman resident, was born in the neighborhood 78 years ago, and worked on Pullman rail cars from the 1950s until the 1980s.

He said Pullman is a “beautiful town, and a lot of history to it.”

Some of that history is in his basement, including “parts of railroad cars, seats, ashtrays, Pullman artifacts.”

“It was like gold,” he said.

Quiroz said he’s glad to hear of the national monument designation.

“Pullman is still surviving. The word Pullman rings a bell to everybody,” he said.

Hundreds of row houses and other buildings from the company town still stand today in the Pullman Historic District, including the Hotel Florence, and the Pullman Administration Building – which is home to the Pullman Company’s clock tower, though the building and tower were seriously damaged in an arson fire in 1998.

The Hotel Florence, part of George Pullman's company town, is currently overseen by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which bought the building to avoid demolition. (Credit: CBS)

The Hotel Florence, part of George Pullman’s company town, is currently overseen by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which bought the building to avoid demolition. (Credit: CBS)

Forgotten and crumbling for a time, the Pullman neighborhood has seen an economic redevelopment in recent years, and the national monument designation can only help.

In the 1880s, the Pullman neighborhood won international acclaim as a model of an industrial town, but its reputation suffered after the infamous Pullman Strike in 1894. Approximately 125,000 workers on 29 railroads went on strike, and refused to work on trains containing Pullman cars, after the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages amid plummeting business from the 1893 depression.

When President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to suppress the strike dozens were killed in violent clashes between troops and workers.

The Pullman Company also was the focus of the first major black labor movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Pullman is considered the birthplace of the African-American labor movement, after A. Philip Randolph formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – the first predominantly black labor union – in 1925.

He enlisted most of the Pullman Company’s railroad porters into the union. Later, in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt signed off on changes to the Railway Labor Act, leading to a boost in the BSCP’s membership, and their first contract with the Pullman Company in 1937, providing pay raises, shorter workweeks, and overtime pay.

Obama’s trip to Chicago to designate Pullman a national monument could provide a boost to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, coming just five days before he faces reelection. The Sun-Times reports the president’s visit also will include a campaign event with Emanuel, possibly with Obama casting his vote.

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