When a friend asks if you’d like to join her on a trip to a place as steeped in history and interest as Chicago’s Pullman District, you don’t turn her down, especially not on a day as lovely as this past Sunday was. We’re both nerds and we’d both always been curious about Pullman, which was, in short, the original planned corporate community, built for employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, about a decade after the Great Chicago Fire. The backstory is fascinating — apparently Clarence Darrow and Eugene Debs both got their starts organizing in the Pullman rail strikes of 1894 — but what you can see today is a strange little shell of what was clearly a truly impressive town once upon a time.
I grew up with a creepy Victorian relic looming over my hometown, but I kept trying to imagine what it must be like to be a kid in Pullman, with all these old, old houses and abandoned, once-grand buildings and public spaces. (I was very taken with Arcade Park, with its landscaping that “implied the original.”) The whole area was so quiet when we visited; you heard nothing else but the wind rustling the trees, and we didn’t see many people, aside from our visit to the Cal-Harbor Restaurant (“2 delicious soups every day,” as advertised).
I’m really glad we went to Pullman, and yes, especially on such a nice day, but I still can’t put my finger on how I feel about the place. One fellow at the visitor’s center (a jumbled affair in dire need of some funding, sadly) said that Pullman had some “refugees” from Hyde Park (another South Side neighborhood, home to my alma mater and President Obama), because the taxes were still reasonable here. We kept comparing the district to other places we’ve seen and loved — it reminded me of Chautauqua, N.Y., where I spent a few summers as a kid — and marveled that we were still in Cook County, much less Chicago. But ultimately, the biggest attraction seemed to be a new Wal-Mart going up by the highway. I hope someday there’s more.
(Apparently we missed the Pullman Porter Museum, which looks much more like what I think I was expecting. Another trip, I guess!)