Efforts to designate parts of the Pullman community on Chicago’s far South Side as a national park site could see some presidential muscle behind the cause.
The head of the U.S. National Park Service toured what remains of the Pullman Palace Car Company Thursday as part of a visit to gage public support for including portions of the community, created by its namesake founder George M. Pullman, in the national park system. Jonathan B. Jarvis, the national parks system director, said a little known presidential power given under the 1906 Antiquities Act could make the proposal a reality sooner than later.
That route seems doable since legislation proposed by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) and U.S. Rep Robin Kelly (D-IL,2) have been stuck in committee in both chambers since the bills were introduced. The Antiquities Act allows a president to use an executive order to designate a site as a national monument.
Jarvis said there are two ways to establish a new park within the national park system — one is through Congress, which he said “we have not seen a lot of movement on” even though both bills have bipartisan support.
“But there is an alternative path and that is presidential power,” he added.
Jarvis was in town Thursday to hear from residents and advocates about including a portion of the Pullman neighborhood into the national park system. Support for the proposal was “loud and clear,” a point Jarvis said he will make note of when he reports back to Washington.
“There are a lot of partners that want to help,” he said. “We heard from the mayor about all the different investments that are going in here, and I think that makes a very strong case to make a positive recommendation to the president.”
“We know the climate in Washington and there is no way this can get passed through the normal process so he [Pres. Obama] has to do this under his executive authority. So that is what we are asking him to do,” said Ald. Anthony Beal (9th). “We are confident that the president is going to sign this into law.
“And it is not uncommon for a president to use this Act,” added Kelly.
Since the enactment of the Antiquities Act, 140 sites have been designated as national monuments including the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. President Obama has used that executive power five times since taking office in 2009. Jarvis noted that there is a theme in the sites Obama has classified as national monuments, which could bode well for the Pullman proposal.
Obama has designated the plantation where Harriet Tubman escaped as a slave and returned several times to help others escape north to freedom as a national monument. Obama also set aside the Xenia, Ohio home of Charles Young, a commanding officer with the Buffalo Soldiers as a national monument.
Jarvis said he will make his recommendations within the next couple of months. When asked how long it could be before Obama makes a decision on the proposed Pullman distinction, Jarvis said he couldn’t predict it. But he noted that it took only 30 days for Obama to move on the Tubman site following his recommendation.
“It is a presidential prerogative and he’s a busy man,” Jarvis said. “You never know what is going on in the world that will take his attention. But I know he’s interested.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a surprise visit to the packed community meeting that drew up to 600 area residents to the Clock Tower Administration Building at 11057 S. Cottage Grove. He said most people seek national park designation to trigger development. But that is not the case for Pullman.
Development, Emanuel said, is already underway, having been spurred by a new Walmart, redevelopment of Olive-Harvey College campus, and an eco-friendly cleaning supply manufacturing company coming to the area. He said the national park designation “is the ribbon around that package.”
“Pullman is coming back,” Emanuel said, garnering applause. “Where Pullman is today with the new retail, it is not the Pullman [it] was before. It is on a journey. It is coming back.”
Beale agrees. He believes the designation will be an economic boon not just for Pullman, but also the entire city and state. Beale said such a distinction would attract national visitors to the far South Side, where tourism dollars rarely flow. To accommodate those visitors, more hotels, restaurants and businesses will need to be built , creating hundreds of construction jobs.
“The community is excited about what this can do,” Beale said. “We just want to make sure that the president knows that the community is behind it.”
A recent study by the city, state and the National Parks Conservation Association estimated that within the first five to 10 years of operation as a national park, Pullman would see 300,000 visitors each year, create 350 jobs, generate $15 million in annual wages and add $40 million to the local economy.
If granted national status, Pullman would be the 402nd park in the nation’s park system. Such a move would also make Pullman Illinois’ second national park site behind Lincoln Home National Historic site in Springfield. The Pullman community has maintained much of its architectural significance as 95 percent of the housing Pullman build for its workers remains intact. An arson fire destroyed the clock tower in 1998 , but it was rebuilt seven years later.
Pullman made his fortune building luxurious sleeping cars. He constructed a planned model industrial town for his workers that is steeped in labor movement history. America owes Labor Day as a national holiday to the Pullman strike of 1894.
The recession of 1893 forced the railroad baron to lay off workers and cut wages without reducing rent. Workers walked off the job resulting in a violent strike that led Pres. Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops. Days after the strike ended, legislation was passed making Labor Day a national holiday.
Pullman hired former slaves to work as porters on his sleeping cars. Responding to racial tension within the company, they organized the first African-American union under the leadership of newspaper publisher A. Philip Randolph. Organized in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black labor union to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. corporation, having done so in 1938.
It is that history that prompted Linda Sargentparks to move from Indiana to the Pullman neighborhood.
“When you walk through Pullman you can feel the history,” said Sargentparks, who lives on the 104th Block of South Forrestville.
West Pullman resident Ted Williams supports making Pullman a national park site and the tourism dollars it would bring to the area. He sees the designation as a symbolic rebirth for a community plagued by crime and violence. He said it will change that perception.
“This will not be a panacea for all the problems, but it will have a trickle-down effect for the rest of the community,” said Williams, who plans to run for 9th Ward alderman.
Frank Thomas, a resident of the Pullman Wheelworks apartment, 901 E. 104th St., also supports the movement to designate Pullman as a national park. He would like to see the clock tower administration building converted to a museum and Hotel Florence become an upscale restaurant.
“A place like this will be able to feature some of the historical things that have happened in the neighborhood,” said Thomas, 34, who grew up in Pullman.