PULLMAN — When the king and queen of the Netherlands make their first royal visit to America in June, they’ll tour a part of Chicago’s South Side that most tourists — particularly wealthy dignitaries — typically never see.
In early June, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima are set to spend an afternoon down on 111th Street. They’ll visit Gotham Greens, the world’s largest rooftop farm that sits atop the new Method soap factory in Pullman, chat with Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep students about healthy eating and mingle with regular folks at a picnic at the Pullman National Monument.
These days, the very idea that the king and queen would leave Chicago’s elegant Downtown to visit Pullman and Roseland seems like an unlikely detour, especially to a poor part of town that some locals call the “Wild Hundreds," an unwanted reference to the area’s struggle against street violence.
But royal visits weren’t always such a shocking thing in railroad mogul George Pullman’s factory town.
Indeed, during the late 1880s, Pullman was Chicago’s “show town” suburb to the south, frequented by European royals.
“German Barons, Italian Counts, French Marquises and English Members of Parliament turn up every day at the Hotel Florence,” the Chicago Tribune reported in an 1888 story under the headline, "The City of Pullman, A Place Whose Fame Has Extended The World Over.”
South Side historian Paul Petraitis said George Pullman hosted many a dignitary, including the king of Belgium, at Pullman’s elegant Queen Anne-style Hotel Florence, well into the 1890s.
“Pullman was a trans-Atlantic guy. He had a lot of business connections in Europe. So when a prince would come to town, Pullman would put him on a train and give a personal tour of his model town, which was quite a spectacle because it was built from nothing and how fast it was going up,” said Petraitis, who lives in Pullman. “We haven’t had lots of royalty come here since the 1890s. The closest thing is probably the mayor and the president. That was pretty good.”
For the Netherlands’ king and queen, their visit is a trip to the once-fertile ground first farmed by early Dutch settlers, who called the patch “de Hooge Prairie" — the High Prairie, that is — that was mostly agricultural land before industrialists, including Pullman, transformed it into Chicago’s manufacturing stronghold.
“Roseland was one of the largest Dutch populations in North America. There were lots of onion sets. They were very solid church-going people who kept the Sabbath. It was a Dutch world down here. You know the saying, ‘If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,'” said Petraitis, a member of the Dutch Heritage Commission who helped edit “Down an Indian Trail in 1849: The Story of Roseland."
“When Pullman came, he hired local Hollanders to take him around in their wagons. He hired a local Hollander woman to do his laundry. Local Hollanders were the first to come back to work — when the strike was over, they were the first ones lined up at the gate,” Petraitis added.
While most of local Dutch population left the area during the “white flight” of the 1970s, some of the churches built by early settlers, including Bethany Reformed Church and a Dutch cemetery near 107th and Michigan — which has no grave markers or record of who is buried there — remain.
“The Dutch had a saying about history, it’s just dust swept under the carpet,” Petraitis said. “That made them an odd bunch to research history with. They’re still a mystery to me.”
As Pullman and Roseland neighborhoods rebound with help from the national monument designation and green manufacturing, it seems fitting that the Dutch will have at least a bit of economic influence there.
For instance, the Gotham Greens rooftop farm will use climate and biological control technology run by Dutch firms Hortimax and Coppert. And some of the seeds planted there are imported from the Rijk Zwaan company based in the Netherlands.
“I think the royal family is excited to see Dutch technology and Dutch companies doing business in the United States … as well as being part of the economic revitalization of Pullman and other issues, including [the addition of urban farming] in a food desert,” said Gotham Greens CEO Viraj Puri, who just might try to get the king and queen to follow in the footsteps of the hardworking Dutch farmers who settled in Pullman more than a century ago.
“We’ll give them a tour, and depending on where we are with construction the first week of June — we’re in the final stages — we’re going to do our best to put them to work,” he said.
Locals hope that the visit from the Dutch royals, which is set for June 3, brings Pullman back as a destination for other world leaders now that the neighborhood has been marked a national monument.
“The minute the president signed the national monument into law, we started getting calls, and we’re excited we’re going to have royalty coming to the 9th Ward,” Ald. Anthony Beale said. “It just shows the Roseland-Pullman community is back on the map.”
And while the royals are here, somebody might want to treat the king and queen to what's arguably Roseland's most prized export — the apple fritter from Old Fashioned Donuts at 113th and Michigan.
I've always said that sweet deep-fried delicacy is a treat fit for a king.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: