By Claire Tighe
I’m obvious, driving slowly down the residential side streets on Chicago’s South side, looking left and right at the Victorian-style homes in Pullman. Though I have lived in Chicagoland all my life, I am seeing this neighborhood for the first time. There’s a beauty and unfamiliarity to the homes and row apartments in this special neighborhood. Their Victorian architecture stands apart from the typical brownstone, greystone, and u-shaped buildings dotting every other block across the city. The sky holds a late-April overcast. Some trees are just barely beginning to bloom. The majority of branches are still naked. It’s “spring,” but winter can end late in Illinois. I’ve seen snow during this week of April. Despite the calendar, I’m cautious believing that it is spring.
While I look for a place to park, I notice the neighborhood’s classic buildings peeking into the sky. There’s the stately Hotel Florence, the old Arcade and market buildings, the Green Stone church, and of course, the workers’ cottages and executive mansions. So this is Pullman – the famous neighborhood founded in 1880 by George M. Pullman as a commercial center for his new business, The Pullman Palace Car Co. This land held the industrial district of the company and the residential community for Pullman’s employees. Today the neighborhood spans North to South from East 95th street down to 115th, with Stony Island Avenue to the East, and Cottage Grove alone the railroad tracks to the West.
I park on a side street across from a set of brick row homes, around the corner from the historic Stables building which is now a gas station. I can’t help but stare at each rooftop and façade as I walk toward the visitor’s center, which for now, is a grey, one-story cinder block building. Branches knock together in the wind, with grey clouds blanketing the brightness from the sky. The church steeple rises behind the trees to the East; the building’s stone is a gorgeous emerald green. There is hardly any ambient noise, aside from the occasional car passing and the Metra train rumbling by on the elevated tracks to the West. I’m less than fifteen miles South of downtown Chicago, but between the Arcade Park, the quaint commons of green space, and square, brightly Victorian colored homes I feel miles from the city.
It’s a Sunday and despite Obama’s recent designation of Pullman as a National Monument, I seem to be the only tourist wandering about. I’m surprised – thinking that after the Obama designation, tourists would be coming in droves. There were even plans for a new visitors center. Would the new monument status change the sleepy vibe of the neighborhood? Would tourists descend despite the media’s limited portrayal of Chicago, and the South Side, as a monolith, a violent and forlorn place? Would the public come to see its complexities, its beauty? If historic Pullman was one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets, the local residents were its keeper.
It was Obama’s proclamation that drew me to Pullman, finally. I blazed through the Sunday traffic on the Dan Ryan, heading South. From the highway, you wouldn’t know Pullman was there. The historic clocktower barely peeks out from behind a giant Walmart sign and a new building, the Method factory. And then it hits you – from East 111th street – the charm. Tucked right off the highway, Pullman, a community with more than 150 years of legacy that played a key role in the industrial, labor, and civil rights history of America.
Its character is charming but not without a deep underlayer. The blocks West of the railroad tracks reveal vacant lots, foreclosed homes, empty storefronts. Like many parts of the city, especially on the South and West sides, infrastructure is noticeably neglected, and the systemic reasoning for it well-documented. And yet life persists. Kids play. Couples walk. Residents keep the neighborhood and its vibrancy alive.
A neighbor stands in front of one of the homes facing North, across from the Arcade Park and old stable building. He’s watering his lawn with a garden hose. Flowers blossom from every corner of his garden and porch. As I pass, he turns his gaze toward me, watching me scanning each building as I pass.
“Been here before?” He calls out. Like I said, I’m obvious.
No, I tell him. I’m from Chicago and have wanted to visit for a long time, but this is my first time. I had heard always heard that Pullman was one of Chicago’s hidden secrets.
“Welcome. It’s hard not to love.”
Without prompting, the neighbor tells me he owns the house, that he loves living in Pullman, and that it’s a Chicago neighborhood unlike any other. I can see why he bursts with neighborhood pride: porch swing, plants, historic home, quiet block.
“Welcome,” he says with a nod. “It’s hard not to love.”
* * *
In the cinder-block museum I get a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of the most notable historic sites for visitors: the hotel, the clock tower, the church, the market square, the stables. In a walk around the neighborhood, I take it all in. To focus only on the historic landmarks would be to miss the essence of the neighborhood. I look for the small stuff. the square mailboxes for residents staying at the Hotel Florence, the painted trim of the workers cottages, the manicured lawn of the square.
There it is, facing the traffic on East 111th. A mural. It’s painted onto the side of a building posing a question rooted in the rich history of Pullman: “WHAT IS YOUR VISION OF A CONTEMPORARY UTOPIAN COMMUNITY?” The white lettering is fitted over what looks like black chalkboard paint. Would there have been chalk readily available, I would have been curious to try writing an answer. While there is none, the question imposes – and I am dared to come up with an imaginative response.
In 1879, after his success as a businessman George Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of land 14 miles south of the city that would house his railroad car factory and company town. Pullman founded his eponymous neighborhood at a time when national eyes were on Chicago. The city was growing at a rapid pace, becoming more prosperous, crowded, and filthy by the year. Pullman created his neighborhood as a foil to the city – a quiet that was planned, clean, orderly. A utopia, of sorts, by George Pullman’s definition: a neighborhood ruled by his paternalistic, capitalist instincts, where his laborers would live and work under his thumb.
Pullman was a solution to the problems of a modern city. He offered amenities to his tenants unavailable in the bustling city of Chicago: indoor toilets, running water, trash collection, paved streets and sidewalks, backyards. His neighborhood became a symbol of progress for the modern age. It “seemed to demonstrate that it was possible to have a healthy, humane, prosperous, and productive urban order,” Carl Smith writes in Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. The town was praised in national press and gained attention as a symbol of economic prosperity. Pullman was a man, a neighborhood, an idea. And an experiment, a symbol: of capital, industry, labor, of possibilities.
In 1883, Reverend David Swing, a friend of Pullman’s, dedicated a new library in the Arcade Building. During his speech, he praised the man and the neighborhood, suggesting that the United States look to Pullman for a solution to the problems of the modern city. “What a country shall we have,” he said, ‘when such an example shall be imitated in all parts of the land” (Carl Smith 190). To gain popularity, Pullman hosted guests at the Hotel Florence and invited visitors from the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition. The praise for Pullman flowed. In 1896, despite the recent labor strike and Pullman’s loss of popularity for failing to meet the demands of his workers, the town was recognized as, “The World’s Most Perfect Town” at the International Hygienic and Pharmaceutical Exposition in Prague.
But a closer look at the lives of the neighborhood’s residents revealed that the town wasn’t utopian. Pullman’s requirements for his residents went against the traditional American ideals of basic freedoms. He maintained strong control over all aspects of town life. Workers could not own their homes and could be inspected and evicted by the company on short notice. Their daily behaviors were monitored and there was little freedom of speech.
Despite his attempts at creating a utopian alternative to the woes of the city, “Pullman himself hardly aimed at lending his name to the cause of racial or social justice,” reports the Chicago Tribune. “He was a control freak, dedicated to being the absolute master of every element of his enterprise.” Indeed, later criticisms of Pullman the man highlight his perpetuation of racial hierarchy in his hiring practices of black laborers to serve his white customers.
In 1884, journalist Richard Ely visited Pullman to review Pullman the place for Harper’s. Unlike many of the other early public responses to Pullman, Ely was skeptical. His subsequent article in Harpers, “Pullman: A Social Study,” begged a number of important questions about the town. “Is Pullman a success from a social standpoint? It is worthy of imitation? It is likely to inaugurate a new era in society? If only a partial success, what are its bright features and what its dark features?” (Ely, Pullman: A Social Study, 452-453, 455). In his takedown of Pullman, Ely pointed out the lack of basic freedoms afforded to residents and questioned the positioning of the town as ideal. After a ten-day visit, Ely concluded that Pullman the neighborhood should not be repeated. “In looking over all the facts of the case the conclusion is unavoidable that the idea of Pullman is un-American…It is not the American ideal” (Ely 465).
As a company town, Pullman lost momentum in 1894 after the famous labor strike. The influence of the town, especially to the history of the labor rights movement and the legacy of African-Americans lives on. The question of Pullman as an ideal community remains. George Pullman’s vision of an ideal community was a contentious one that ultimately did not serve the lives of his residents. But what does it mean to reimagine, George Pullman aside, our vision of an ideal community?
It’s December. For eight months the mural’s question has haunted me. It’s a few days before the New Year and the city feels quiet. I’m in the Loop with a few hours to spare. Pullman calls. I drive South. I want to see that mural.
This time I’m bolder in my obviousness. I drive all around Pullman again, attracting glances of passerby. On the North Side, I notice a significant piece of Pullman history that had no mention of in the visitor’s center before: The Pullman Car Porter museum. It’s conspicuously set apart from the rest of historic Pullman’s landmarks. So Pullman’s legacy remains segregated even in its remembrance.
It’s only the afternoon but the early winter evening darkness descends quickly. An inch of hard snow is on the ground from the days before. When I slam the car door closed, a few flurries dance around my head. The cold air calls for reinforcement. I tuck my scarf into my coat, pull the zipper up to cover my nose, pull my hat down over my ears, and flip the hood over my head. While this Chicago winter outer layer adds a noticeable weight to my walk, I love the obscurity I gain behind a hat, a zipper covering the bottom half of my face, and a hood covering the rest. This time, no neighbors greet me. It’s too late in the afternoon on a weekday before the holiday – the museum is already closed. This time no friendly interactions with the museum associate. No neighbors around. No train rumbling by.
And there it is: its big, impending question, really more of a call to action than a query. WHAT IS YOUR VISION OF A CONTEMPORARY UTOPIAN COMMUNITY? Once again, Pullman the neighborhood asks its observers – Midwesterners, Rust Belters, Americans – to envision and reach into a brighter, collective future.
What is our vision of an ideal community? Maybe the answer still lies in Pullman.
At this point in Chicago history, people are fleeing in droves – the economics and inequality becoming too much. Billboards advertise the benefits of moving to Indiana. While the city’s institutions fail to meet all of the needs of the city, communities insist on keeping it alive. What is our vision of an ideal community? Maybe the answer still lies in Pullman. For fifty years, Pullman neighbors organized to make their site a National Landmark. They remind us to figure out what we need and demand that lawmakers deliver. Pullman, no doubt, holds promise. The people of Pullman continue to lead by example, their community a constant symbolic reminder. At the very least, the existence of the historic neighborhood prompts us to imagine what an ideal community could be, for this city, the Rust Belt, and the country. Pullman, the South side, and Chicago, offer some inspiration. Natalie Moore, an expert on Chicago’s South side explains, “The issues [financial stress, violence, systemic inequality] that Chicago is facing are not unlike the issues facing other cities, particularly in the Midwest or Northeast…If you want to know about American cities, if you want to understand why cities look the way they do, this would be that a good place to start.”
Right now, post-2016 election, Americans displeased with the results are looking to the Midwest and to the Rust Belt, asking, “What happened?” As in, “How could you elect this leader?” Instead of looking deeper and inward, at our collective history as a nation and as American people, and asking, “What are we capable of doing together?” In the 1880s, when George Pullman attempted a utopia, the nation wondered, “Could this thing really work?” In 2017, what can Pullman, Chicago, the Midwest tell us about ourselves, as people and as a nation? What is our vision for an ideal community, as Chicagoans, the Rust Belt, and America? To consider what is possible, first we must begin to dream.
* * *
The sun is setting and it’s time to head back downtown so I don’t get caught in traffic. Before getting back on the highway, I take one last loop around the neighborhood to drink it all in. I slow down as I pass a new café. I can see someone in the window, wiping the counter with a towel. There are no obvious customers to be seen. Outside, the winter air fogs up the glass.
Claire Tighe is a writer whose work has appeared at The Village Voice, Ms., Bitch, and Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology (forthcoming).