Leaders in planning…on the south side of Chicago?

Courtesy of the Pullman Museum

Historic Pullman, Courtesy of the Pullman Museum

I don’t see South Side Chicago neighborhoods winning a lot of awards. Cook County was never a place that I thought would win awards in something other than crime statistics. For the record: I’ll wear my bias on my sleeve because I think my mental anecdotes are relevant, and I think it is better for all of us if I just tell you up front that the area in question isn’t my favorite. In fact, this video shows precisely the area we’re talking about, and is how I remember everything in that region.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43sfaB-E3Uo

I’m from the South Side of Chicago; more specifically a place called Calumet City. You know, the Blues Brothers Calumet City? No? I didn’t think so. Many don’t. It’s not necessarily a region that encourages one to get to know it and remember it fondly. When I reflect on where I grew up, I think of a lot of things: hot summers, cold winters, lake-effect snow, gangs, drugs, and poverty. I think about them in that order, because that’s the nice way to remember it. I never think back and say “Wow, what a swell place that was where I grew up – it was so safe, so stable, so beautiful… This place will win awards for being a great neighborhood or town someday, you’ll see!” I’d never say that, and I don’t know who would. But this isn’t about Calumet City. It’s about a neighborhood that’s approximately 5 miles Northwest of my street, and seems to break from its surroundings and categorical labels of what the South Side is supposed to looks like.

The Pullman Neighborhood.

I ran across Pullman’s information on the American Planners Association website under their Great Neighborhoods (2011) heading. I should have known where Pullman was, but I didn’t. I should have because I don’t know how many times I’ve driven or ridden by that area on my comings and goings. My grandma lived right there in Dolton and the Roseland area. I spent time at those parks, those streets, those neighborhoods and none of that area is nice. None of it is beautiful, at least in my estimation. Yet here was this article championing its value in history and progression, architecture and community involvement. Where was this place hiding when I was there? In plain sight, I suppose.

Pullman Coach – Wikipedia, Copyright: Marine 69-71

The Pullman area is rich with history. The designer and manufacturer of the “Pullman Car”, George Pullman, wanted a company town, presumably so that employees could live and work in the area. The idea was to have a beautiful, green, suburban park amongst the factory backdrop, topped with architecture and urban designs that were Victorian in style, yet utilized brick as their main building and aesthetic component. As an interesting note, the first all-African American union was formed here, by the workers on the sleeping cars called the “Pullman Porters.”

Diamond in the rough..?

The neighborhood is nestled against Lake Calumet and separated from Roseland by a concrete train trestle – which is probably why I had no idea it was there, even though I had drove or taken the train into Downtown countless times and passed right by it. It is, however, surrounded by neighborhoods significantly less admirable, and certainly less desirable. I grew up watching areas like Roseland, Dolton, Burnham, and Calumet City turn and fade into areas of crime and dysfunctional housing. The fact that this neighborhood exists within all of that, and further, flourishes, makes me wonder: what could possibly be the cause of such a perceived anomaly?

Taking it back.

In 1960, the town of Roseland was set to demolish what was left of Pullman in order to make an industrial park. The people of Pullman said no. They said no loudly, and launched a movement that would eventually win them National Monument status. From that point forward, it would seem, Pullman residents would embrace their history and perhaps “get back to basics.” They’ve been restoring and rejuvenating their little space ever since. The Pullman Civic Organization, in its bylaws states:

“The residents of this community, known as Pullman, have banded together and formed this Organization to promote the general welfare of the Community and to preserve its historical significance and continuing their efforts to educate and memorialize the significance of the area. The Organization is registered as a Not-For-Profit Corporation under the laws of the State of Illinois and its existence shall be perpetual.”

Rebuilding old facades and structures, re-appropriating and using old Pullman railway buildings for office space, revitalizing park features, and renovating community attributes like the market square are some of what make this neighborhood appealing.  Citizens taking the initiative to develop a community garden, a nursery, and even a greenhouse to extend the potential use of those features are community driven programs. The Pullman neighborhood is a survivor.

Leading through community action.

What makes this neighborhood a leader in planning is its community. The citizens that took and continue to take ownership of their history, their planning, and their sustainability – they are the leaders. Despite the greater area they reside in, they continue to make improvements on their community – as a community. I wonder what would happen if the surrounding neighborhoods took ownership with the same purposeful vigor and desire. Perhaps then I’d have some nice things to say about Calumet City. Pullman’s community gives me a sense of hope that citizens can really change the context in which they live.

Pullman Neighborhood, Courtesy of Pullman Town Tours (Trainweb.org)

Pullman Neighborhood, Courtesy of Pullman Town Tours (Trainweb.org)

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2 thoughts on “Leaders in planning…on the south side of Chicago?

  1. Your personal experience here gives you credibility for your assessment. The “drama” you’ve set-up and the shock of its transformation is palpable. What a different way to talk about the evolution of planning leadership.

  2. Thanks Sean, great article. I wonder if the involvement of the Pullman Porters — and perhaps the neighborhood’s existence as a prosperous African American enclave — might have something to do with the residents’ activism, and desire to preserve an overlooked heritage. Pullman’s effort to build a company town isn’t unique during that same time period — another example in England is the town of Letchworth, an Ebenezer Howard Garden City funded by the owners of Cadbury’s Chocolates. These types of urban forms were often called Greenbelt Cities in the U.S. – trivia for the upcoming survey 😉

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