Chicago to get its first national monument: Pullman Park district

George Pullman’s factory town on Chicago’s south side is to be named a national monument next week:

President Obama will designate Chicago’s Pullman Park district, an iconic site in African American and labor history, as a national monument next week, according to White House officials.

The area, which includes nearly 90?percent of the original buildings that rail car magnate George Pullman built a century ago for his factory town, was the birthplace of the nation’s first African American labor union. The president will travel to Chicago Feb. 19 to make the designation in person, said White House spokesman Frank Benenati in an e-mail…

“The people who are part of the Pullman legacy helped to shape America as we know it today,” Lynn McClure, Midwest senior director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “Pullman workers fought for fair labor conditions in the late 19th century and the Pullman porters helped advance America’s civil rights movement… Thanks to the president, Pullman’s story will soon be remembered and recounted for the millions of people that visit America’s national parks each year.”…

Chicago is one of the only major cities in the U.S. that does not have a national park.

Status-anxious Chicago now gets a national park and at least one symbol that its history is important. Some of the earlier discussion about this possible monument had to do with development opportunities; now that there may be a steady stream of visitors to the site, how can it help promote economic development? I’m not sure what I would imagine growing up around such a site; souvenir shops? Restaurants to help feed visitors?

Chicago Tribune: President Obama should name Pullman a national park to jumpstart economic development

The Chicago Tribune editorializes that economic development in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood would get a huge boost from being designated as a national park:

Pullman needs swift, decisive action via executive order to jump-start economic development. Damaged by the death of manufacturing, Chicago’s Southeast Side and Pullman need exactly this type of federal nudge. The local residents can’t do it. The city can’t do it. The state can’t do it. You can do it.

The dainty row houses of Pullman remain a testament to the one-of-a-kind development George Pullman brought to Chicago. From the wisps of a prairie, he built and then owned one of the country’s first factory towns. The workers who built his upscale passenger rail cars lived in housing on the property. Most of that housing remains in its original dollhouse state.

Designating Pullman a national park would make the Pullman campus a tourist and train enthusiasts’ destination and spur entrepreneurs to open businesses in the surrounding area.

Mr. President, show us another neighborhood like Pullman. Show us another community with its rich history — the site of a major labor strike and the birthplace of the first recognized black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

If you won’t award it national park status, then show us another way to save Pullman. Tell us you plan to build your presidential library there, one of many locations courting you.

This is an interesting appeal for economic development: only making a historic site within a downtrodden urban neighborhood a national park can help. Tourism and history can be big business today. Additionally, this park would be close to the 9 million plus people in the Chicago metropolitan region who don’t have many other nearby choices in national parks.

Still, it strikes me as a bit of an odd appeal. A national park should be designated as such because of the site’s merit or because of the surrounding neighborhood which needs some help?

Turning Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood into a national park

Some are hoping to create Illinois’ second national park in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood:

Pullman would be one of the more unusual sites for a national park and among the easiest to reach. The Metra Electric Line has two stops in the community of about 8,900 residents. It also would be one of the least bucolic.

Two residents said they’re pushing for the park because the increased tourist traffic would help sustain retail businesses that otherwise can’t survive in the neighborhood. A massive Wal-Mart is scheduled to open nearby this summer, but the area has been barren of dry cleaners, salons, restaurants and coffee shops for years…

At the request of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the state’s two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, the National Park Service is in the midst of studying the neighborhood’s suitability as a national park site, said Mike Reynolds, the park service’s Midwest regional director. The study should be complete by May.

“Pullman’s significance is of no question,” Reynolds said when asked what the study would conclude. “Then we have to ask is there another one like it already out there in our (parks) system? In this case, I doubt there is. … Finally, we come to feasibility — the how, what, where. That’s the challenging issue in this case.”

The neighborhood is indeed historic and I’m sure the neighborhood and the city of Chicago love the idea of more tourists. I imagine there is a lot of potential here, particularly for school groups who could visit and to highlight Chicago’s important industrial past.

I don’t know the particulars of the National Park System but I am in favor of more urban sites. We need to preserve nature as well as notable urban locations that have heavily influenced American history.