Leaders hold groundbreaking ceremony to kick off $34 million renovation project
Crusader Staff Report
Elegant courtyards. Scenic walkways. Historic tours.
Six years after President Barack Obama declared it a National Monument, work officially began Labor Day Weekend on the Pullman Clock Tower. It joins a wave of projects that are part of a resurgence in the predominately Black neighborhood.
The project kicks off a massive effort to restore the historic site, which includes a portion that was gutted by fire in 1998.
One hundred and twenty-six years after the Pullman Palace Car workers’ strike influenced and foreshadowed the nation’s Labor and Civil Rights movements, community leaders held a symbolic Labor Day groundbreaking ceremony to kick off a $34 million restoration project on the 12-acre site.
The refurbished 19th-century clock tower on 111th Street will tell generations of visitors the story of civil rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Great Migration and the 1894 strike that eventually led to the creation of the Labor Day holiday.
Senator Dick Durbin, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Alderman Anthony Beale (9th Ward), Colleen Callahan, Director, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), and Congresswoman Robin Kelly gathered at the historic Pullman Clock Tower to celebrate the onset of construction of the Pullman National Monument site.“If there ever is a moment in history and if there is ever a place to do it, it is right here on Labor Day 2020 that we know that railroad track is big enough for economic justice and rail justice,” said Senator Durbin, D-Illinois.
In 2014, Durbin introduced legislation to designate the Pullman District as a national park. A year later, then-President Barack Obama designated the Pullman Train Car Factory as a national monument, with hopes that the fading industrial corridor would turn into a major tourist destination.
Lightfoot praised the project as one that’s important to the city’s future.
“We owe it to the home and community, and to our entire country, to preserve the history and uplift this neighborhood to its rightful place in our city’s cultural and economic life,” Mayor Lightfoot said.
“We have created jobs from private and public partnerships in the area. That is exactly why the crime is down over 44 percent in the 5th District of the 9th Ward,” Ald. Beale added.
“Seventy-five percent of the folks who work for me are African-American; 50 percent of them are low income. It is extremely important that companies who are based here in the city of Chicago give back,” said Cornelius Griggs, general contractor for GMA Construction Group.
Pullman is steeped in labor and civil rights history and was home to the nation’s first Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Porters and workers went on strike to protest wages and working conditions, which drew a lethal federal response at the time.
Joining the group were Liisa Stark, representing both Union Pacific Railroad and the other National Park Foundation donors, which provided the first donated funds in 2014; Chicago Federation of Labor President Robert Reiter; and Teri Gage, Superintendent, Pullman National Monument for the National Park Service – the entity that is responsible for the construction and operation of the finished monument with its various historic and educational aspects.
Congresswoman Kelly said, “Pullman once again is a new destination, a place to visit, to live and to work. Thanks to the efforts and the leadership of those here today, it’s a community using history to build a better, brighter future.”
IDNR Director Callahan said the renovation includes transforming the iconic Clock Tower and Administration building into the Visitor’s Center with exhibits that will recount the history of Pullman as a model town, as a labor mecca and as an antecedent of the Civil Rights and labor movements. Once completed in the Spring of 2021, the exhibits will feature George Pullman and the Pullman Palace Car Co., which was the first to hire African Americans from the community for jobs as porters, waiters, and housekeepers—hirings that were seen as a milestone in the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century. It will also feature a new outdoor public space.
Additional exhibits will showcase the development of Pullman as a model town, the history of strife-ridden labor relations where the 8-hour work-day was born and tell the story of the Pullman porters who worked in sleeper train cars across the country and formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first Black labor union that became the doorway through which many Civil Rights gains were made. “More than 300,000 visitors a year are anticipated to visit the National Monument Site,” added Callahan.
Alderman Beale noted that the groundbreaking for the 12-acre campus is the latest milestone in the revitalization of the Pullman community, where a new 150,000-square-foot Amazon distribution center and 400,000-square-foot SC Johnson manufacturing facility will open in the fall, creating 400 jobs. Earlier this year, the Amateur Athletic Union agreed to make the Pullman Community Center its new Midwest headquarters, and residents moved into Pullman Artspace Lofts, the first new residential complex in Pullman in more than 50 years. These developments and opportunities were catalyzed by the designation of the National Monument site on Feb. 19, 2015, and the more than $350 million of public and private investments that include redevelopment of the 180-acre Ryerson steel site and creation of 1,500 jobs that has made Pullman “a model for neighborhood revitalization.”