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Pullman Neighbors Hope National Park Status Will Improve Quality Of Life

By Mark Konkol | November 5, 2013 4:00pm | Updated on November 6, 2013 9:11am
 As the debate over whether to designate Pullman as a national park a public art project asks, "What is your vision of a contemporary utopian community?"
As the debate over whether to designate Pullman as a national park a public art project asks, "What is your vision of a contemporary utopian community?"
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

PULLMAN — My neighbors will tell you, there's no place in Chicago that compares to life in George Pullman's factory town.

We live amid industrial ruins, surrounded by blight, poverty and senseless violence. But we hold on to hope that one day our tiny, planned community — dubbed the "World's Most Perfect Town" by the Prague International Hygienic and Pharmaceutical Exposition in 1896 — can be revived.

And on Tuesday, our collective hope bubbled over as the public conversation kicked up a notch over whether the Historic Pullman District should be designated as a National Park.

National Park advocates, community leaders and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) gathered at the Pullman Administration Building and touted a new economic study that says National Park status and the federal funding that comes with it would energize economic development and job creation through tourism.

More than 300,000 visitors a year, the study says. And 350 jobs paying out $15 million in annual wages and sustaining a $40 million local economy. 

Later this year, a bill is expected to be proposed in Congress to make it happen.

And if the bill fails to pass, advocacy groups have already started lobbying President Barack Obama — whose career as a community organizer started with coffee klatches at the Pullman McDonald's — to use his executive powers to approve National Park status.

My neighbors will tell you that what's at stake is more than promoting tourism and preserving an important part of American labor and civil rights history. They're fighting to improve their quality of life in a forgotten part of town.

For so long, Pullman has survived against terrible odds. In the late '60s, neighbors fought successfully to spare the entire neighborhood from being demolished to make way for an industrial park.

They won the fight to have the neighborhood, all of it, placed on the National Historic Register.

And when fire gutted the Administration clocktower, and neglect infected the historic Hotel Florence, neighbors banded together to convince the state to rebuild and refurbish Pullman's crown jewels.

Pullmanites, until Wal-Mart opened earlier this year, lived in the heart of a food desert. There still isn't a single restaurant other than McDonald's that's open for supper. And our two Metra stations — which can get you downtown in less than 20 minutes — are dilapidated depots.

When I tell people I live in Pullman, they usually confuse it with Pilsen.

I tell them of the beautiful architecture and rich history of the labor movement, clarifying my location with cross streets — 111th and Cottage — and, still, they ask if I live in a ghetto.

Certain North Siders — and you know who you are  — who I've invited to visit have said they wouldn't dare venture to my part of town.

 While the push to turn Pullman into a National Park steams ahead a public art installation asks." What is your vision of a contemporary urban community?"
Pullman utopia
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Now, the hope is that marking Pullman as a National Park — even just adding a sign with the iconic arrowhead — would help change the perception of the place we call home.

Community groups, even the ones who don't always get along, all agree it's the shot in the arm the neighborhood needs. (But there's also a contingent of folks who refuse to give up on convincing Obama to locate his presidential library here, as well.)

Folks have reached consensus on the idea that if you add a National Park designation (or build that presidential library) tourists will come and economic development will follow.

Studies say that's a safe bet.

But no one can really be sure exactly how any of that might actually make Pullman a better place to live.

There's a public art installation — a giant chalkboard, really — mounted to the Hotel Florence Annex that asks folks living in what once was the world's most perfect town: "What is your vision of a contemporary urban utopia?"

It's a fitting question since an industrial utopia is what railroad mogul George Pullman aspired to create in 1880 when he built this place for his workers to live and thrive — sturdy homes near a good school, with a hospital, hotel, shops and church amid lush parks and gardens.

In colored chalk, my neighbors jotted what they believe would make Pullman a more perfect place.

Dreamers wrote of grand plans for a solar field and wind farm in the footprint of the Pullman Palace Car company's wheelworks.

Pragmatists hoped for simpler things — a coffee house, community kitchen and one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's fancy protected bike paths. 

One parent wrote, "That my son can grow up in a city neighborhood, go to his city neighborhood schools, play outside in his neighborhood w/o the fear of gangs or violence on his streets!"

A cynic or two hoped that Pullman wouldn't change at all.

"No National Park. Keep Pullman for Pullmanites - Not Government Bureaucrats," someone wrote.

While none of the chalk scribbles really answered the artist's question, the project does reflect the spirit of the neighborhood I've known for eight years.

After more than 40 years of nurturing Pullman's gardens, restoring its homes and dilapidated historic buildings, and preserving the neighborhood's rich history, my neighbors aren't pushing for unattainable perfection.

They're just tired of being overlooked by the people in power who can finally put Pullman on the map — either as a National Park or home to Obama's library.

It might not be utopia, but it could make living there a little less of a struggle.