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Pullman National Monument: A Reminder of the Lessons We Should Be Taking from the Past

02/10/2015 02:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

PullmanSign.jpg

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogPutting a marker on history is more than just saying "this is what happened back then" - it is a reminder of the lessons we should be taking from the past.

That is part of what makes the news of an imminent announcement that Chicago's Pullman neighborhood will become a National Monument so important. Sure, the area is far different from the natural beauty of Yosemite or Yellowstone, but the Antiquities Act has long brought historic sites into the National Park Service's holdings where they can spur contemplation and critical thinking about the American experience. Like the Civil War battlefields into national parks, Pullman offers a glimpse into a unique point in American history, where greatness, conflict and the fight for dignity and self-determination sprouted up, side by side in short order.

Even today, the Pullman story centers on dueling themes of innovation and struggle for a better life.

The vestiges of the "ideal" company town that established to build the iconic Pullman Palace railcars and house its workers before the last turn of the century were long ago swallowed up by Chicago; the brawling city it was designed to stand apart from and provide a stark contrast of order and regimentation. The gorgeous architecture and thoughtful design of what George Pullman considered the world's "most perfect town," planted the seeds of urbanism and transit-oriented development--concepts that are once again driving smart city planning.

But it is the history of social opportunity that looms largest. As a National Monument, the area would stand memorial to the Black experience in America, the birth of the union movement, the locus of innovation in the transportation system that helped make this country an industrial, commercial giant.

Those lofty ideals came to a fiery end when the company's heavy-handed management resulted in the historic, bloody labor riots of 1894.

A good memorial makes it clear that history is not just about the past. This memorial also continues to tell the story of the struggle for human and community dignity that made the Pullman site worth memorializing, which are far from over. Directly east of the Hotel Florence, a building at the center of Pullman's town, the struggle for dignity in the face of industrial degradation of people and the environment is abundantly clear today, as Southeast Siders confront modern day industrialists who are dumping massive mounds of petroleum coke, an oil refining waste, in the midst of their neighborhoods, near their homes, parks and schools. The community is determined that their homes and neighborhoods are not a "sacrifice zone" for dirty industry.

The National Park Service investment in Pullman would be a significant help to the community and a promissory note that the area should not be a sacrifice zone. It would focus Americans on revisiting the past and taking new lessons to enrich our lives today.

The nearby petcoke piles stand in stark contrast; a nasty monument to lessons unlearned, which should be rejected. Let's honor the legacy of Pullman as a monument to human dignity and those who struggle to make it a reality today that should be embraced.

Kudos to the President, the Park Service and members of the Illinois delegation in DC like Senator Durbin, Representative Kelly and Senator Kirk, who have helped to make the monument designation happen. As the Chicago Tribune noted, "This Could Be Big."

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.