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Two Aldermen Lead Push for Pullman National Park

By Ted Cox | March 18, 2013 1:22pm
 Pullman's Hotel Florence: A symbol both of the area's decay and its potential for revival.
Pullman's Hotel Florence: A symbol both of the area's decay and its potential for revival.
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

CHICAGO — Two aldermen have led the City Council in a push for national park status for Pullman.

Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and Bob Fioretti (2nd) orchestrated the passing a resolution last week throwing the council's weight behind the effort and urging Illinois' congressional delegation and President Barack Obama to push it forward.

"Making the area a national park will definitely help us bring a lot of attention and added resources to the historic district there in Pullman," Beale said Monday, adding that it would complement the Pullman Park development in his ward.

Pullman's elegant, Queen Anne-style Hotel Florence was bought by the state in 1991 as the area was designated an Illinois Historic Site. The area was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1971.

 A former Pullman resident and longtime area booster, Ald. Bob Fioretti says a Pullman National Park would be "good for the city" and "great economic development."
A former Pullman resident and longtime area booster, Ald. Bob Fioretti says a Pullman National Park would be "good for the city" and "great economic development."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

But tourism was greatly diminished after a 1998 fire damaged a factory building and its trademark clock tower. Beale and Fioretti believe adding the district to the U.S. National Parks system would help revive tourism, which Fioretti said fell from 100,000 visitors 20 years ago to 20,000 a year now.

"It's good for the city to remember our history, and it's great economic development," said Fioretti, who grew up in adjacent Roseland and lived for a while in Pullman. He's also been president of the Historic Pullman Foundation, and his 2nd Ward includes the site of George Pullman's home at 16th Street and Prairie Avenue.

Fioretti granted that Pullman is not what people conventionally think of as a national park, but said the resolution makes a strong argument.

"We run the gamut from the educational to the labor movement to architecture to civil rights," he added.

"Obviously, you've got the make the case," Fioretti said. "I think we're close."

The Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site in Springfield is the only other national park in Illinois.

Pullman was one of the first planned communities, creating homes for workers in Pullman's sleeper-car factory around a city center in an array of townhouses organized by a caste system for executives, engineers, artisans and laborers.

An 1894 strike, however, went national and brought in federal troops, badly damaging the company, its workforce and Pullman's reputation. (When he died three years later, Pullman was buried in Graceland Cemetery within a room-sized block of concrete under a massive column to keep anyone from digging up and defiling the body.)

Still, Pullman porters went on to create the first entirely African-American union and played a direct role in organizing and sustaining the civil-rights movement. The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum celebrating the union's founder is also in the neighborhood.

The state has recently pumped $3.5 million into the Hotel Florence, but is trying to attract additional commercial development on an "as-is" basis. Local residents have found it "disheartening," saying there is still abundant potential for the hotel and the surrounding district.

"Hopefully, we'll have the hotel up and running with the state, finally," Fioretti said.

In his speech to the council urging adoption of the resolution, Fioretti pointed out that Obama used the Pullman McDonald's as a location for neighborhood organizing before he entered politics. The neighborhood has also been mentioned as a possible location for Obama's inevitable presidential library.

Beale pointed out that one of the selection criteria for the eventual site is financial impact on a community.

"So what better place to put the library than the community he got his start from?" he added, putting forth the site of the old clock tower as the perfect location.

The resolution backs a U.S. House measure asking the secretary of the Interior Department to conduct a special resource study to consider adding Pullman to the national park system. Beale said that study is already underway, thanks to the efforts of departed U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and Fioretti said it could lead to a formal recommendation by May.

Sen. Dick Durbin is also pushing the congressional resolution, and Beale added that Obama could add the Pullman district to the national parks by executive order.

"Either way, I think it will obtain the necessary attention that it needs to get," Beale said.