PULLMAN — On Thursday, President Barack Obama will head to Chicago to designate my neighborhood a national monument.
For years, my Pullman neighbors have talked about how great it would be if the National Park Service would just take our long-struggling Far South Side historic district — railroad mogul George Pullman’s most perfect company town — under its protective wing.
Now that it’s actually happening, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around how life might be different living in a national monument.
Of course, the designation will help preserve the slowly vanishing story of Pullman workers who fought against unfair labor practices in the late 19th century and the Pullman porters who helped advanced the U.S. civil rights movement.
And there’s a study out there that says the new designation could bring more than 300,000 visitors a year, 350 jobs paying out $15 million in annual wages and pump $40 million into the local economy by putting our historic industrial ruins on the National Park Service map.
But all that doesn’t really seem to explain what changes when a nearly forgotten South Side neighborhood suddenly becomes as nationally significant as Yellowstone, the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore.
For the people who live here, it’s a sigh of relief. It's a blessing that comes when you hold out hope — and more than that.
“What it means is, you will see Pullman and Roseland transform on an accelerated pace right before our eyes,” 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale said through a giant smile.
“This accelerates all the development we’ve been talking about for years: hotels, restaurants, shops. This is like slamming your foot on the gas pedal.”
Hours after the news broke this week, there already were signs that the national monument status will be a powerful economic engine in our part of town, according to the Pullman developer who brought a shopping center and soap factory to the dead Ryerson Steel site.
“This morning I was already getting calls from people who haven’t called in months, Marriott Hotels and restaurant chains that all the sudden want to meet to talk about Pullman,” Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives President David Doig said. “It’s definitely a game changer.”
And, yes, the national monument status means the scary Metra Electric Line stations from 103rd to 115th and the always-promised, never-delivered CTA Red Line extension will get fast-tracked, according to people who know about these things.
Multiple sources say Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing what he does best — raising millions in donations — for a Pullman National Monument trust fund. That money could be used to jump-start construction to convert the dirt-floored Pullman Administration Building's clock tower into a visitor center and fund redevelopment opportunities and educational programs, among other things.
National Park Conservation Association Midwest Director Lynn McClure said that before Obama comes to town, the clock tower will be adorned with a National Park Service’s iconic arrowhead sign.
Pullmanites can expect to see park rangers — some on loan from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore — getting Pullman’s transformation started almost immediately.
A few weeks back, while no one was looking, the state transferred the Pullman Administration Building property to the federal government, leaving no reason to delay.
In April, McClure’s group will host a three-day workshop aimed at brainstorming with urban planners on how to best capitalize on the national monument status — and federal funding that comes with it — to make Pullman a tourist destination that benefits the folks who live there, too.
And boy do my neighbors deserve all the good things that the designation might bring.
In the late 1960s, some of them successfully fought to spare the entire neighborhood from being demolished to make way for an industrial park and earn a spot on the National Historic Register.
When fire gutted the Administration Building clock tower, and neglect infected the historic Hotel Florence, my neighbors successfully persuaded the state to rebuild and refurbish Pullman's crown jewels.
For decades, they've organized tours, tended to public gardens, lobbied to preserve Pullman's fading history and struggled through tough economic times that turned surrounding communities into poverty-stricken food deserts with serious gang problems.
Sure, Obama and the politicians standing by his side at next week's announcement deserve plenty of credit for their effort to honor Pullman’s prominent place in American history.
But my neighbors deserve a pretty big pat on the back, too.
Our nation’s newest national monument wouldn’t be here without them.
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