President Barack Obama flew to Chicago today to designate part of the city’s historic Pullman neighborhood as one of the nation’s newest national monuments, making it the first national park inside Chicago city lines.
First built for the employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured railroad cars in the mid-to-late 19th century, the leafy neighborhood takes its name from Gilded Age industry magnate George Pullman. The historic district, about 200 acres in size, is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the first Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Most of its original brick houses still stand, and the Far South Side Chicago neighborhood just miles from the Indiana border is still predominantly Black.
Aside from its place at the heart of Chicago’s history and identity, Pullman is an enviromental landmark, too. It contains a seven-acre sanctuary for birds, tucked behind the old factory and clock tower. The creation of the sanctuary was organized by Sherry Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, which stewards the cultural heritage of the Black community on the city’s South Side.
A few years ago, Williams, a longtime resident of the area, noticed the acreage’s potential for birds despite mounds of debris that had piled up in the wake of a 1998 fire. “I’d loved birds all of my life,” she said, “and observed that quite a few natural assets were available at this site.”
She began having conversations with local stakeholders, including Audubon Chicago Region, to figure out what needed to happen to transform the space. In 2009 and 2010, volunteers planted upwards of 120 native trees and shrubs, installed birdfeeders, birdhouses, and a birdbath, and removed rubble and trash. To continue her work, in 2012 Williams was awarded a Toyota TogetherGreen fellowship, a grant program that partners people hoping to bring conservation and birding to their communities with their local Audubon chapters. Now called the Johnson Bird Oasis, the green space hosts tours and educational programming for all comers, including the hundreds of school-age children who come to learn about the bird habitats it hosts.
“These little oases are incredibly important in Chicago,” said Rebeccah Sanders, executive director of Audubon Chicago Region. “This is where [migratory birds] find habitat after going over hundreds of miles of corn and soybean fields that aren’t suitable for them.” Since Williams started working on the Pullman plot, she’s observed dozens of bird species at the site, including Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Turkey Vultures, all of which nest nearby.
In addition to greening and refurbishing the land, Williams also helped begin a monthly bird walk with a group of predominantly Black birders that calls itself the “Afrobirders.” Williams makes a particular effort to engage young people, saying it was not uncommon for three generations of black families to show up.
But Williams is clear that people of all backgrounds are welcome to attend. “Whatever your ethnicity is, you’re still an ‘Afrobirder,’” she says.
Not everyone on the walks is an expert. But even those who can’t tell a blackbird from a warbler still appreciate the birds’ rambunctious personalities, Williams said. “We didn’t go out as intentionally avid birdwatchers,” she said. “We went out to enjoy nature” and to use “birdwatching as an opportunity for fellowship.”
The walks are for more than just casual strolls through the greenery, explains Williams. She uses lessons about conservation to spark discussion about diversity, heritage, and civics for the people of the South Side.
For example, on one walk Williams might draw her companions’ attention to the parallels between the annual migrations of birds and the Great Migration of from the rural South to the urban North in the 20th century. Another analogy she often makes: the decimation of crow populations by West Nile virus to the AIDS epidemic in communities of color.
The aim, Williams explains, is to get the community to understand conservation as part of its cultural heritage. “I share with people quite often that Africans have been stewards of the earth since the beginning of time,” she says, “and that it’s a natural fit for African-Americans to participate in conservation.”
The sanctuary is temporarily closed during the national monument designation transition period. Meanwhile, Pullman residents can still go birding at a nearby two-acre site in Bronzeville, adjacent to the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb, which she also founded.
In his speech Thursday, Obama focused on the historical aspects of the Pullman neighborhood.
“This site is at the heart of what would become America’s labor movement, and as a consequence, what would become America’s middle class,” the president said.
At the time of their completion in the 1880s, Pullman houses reportedly had running water, indoor toilets, and access to good schools and parks—a rarity for that era’s working class. But the relationship between George Pullman and his employees soured following an 1893 recession, when he initiated mass layoffs and wage cuts. A subsequent strike that spread nationwide was eventually suppressed by federal troops.
Later on, in 1925, Pullman porters formed the first all-Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (one Pullman porter was Michelle Obama’s great-grandfather). Since then, the neighborhood has received city, state, and national landmark designations. But local residents, with the support of both Democratic and Republican politicians in Illinois, have long pushed for additional protections.
The national monument designation “culminates 50 years of a grassroots effort of trying to put Pullman on the map,” Cindy McMahon, vice president of the Historic Pullman Foundation, told Audubon. “It’s good to know that people finally feel the same way we do about Pullman’s history and its impact on America as a whole.”
According to McMahon, the national monument designation should help shore up the neighborhood’s economy, in part by bringing in more visitors.
Staff from the National Park Service will also be arriving, a first for Chicago, one of the few major cities in the United States without any national park land.
Also on Thursday, Obama designated a national monument at Hawaii’s Honouliuli Internment Camp, a World War II prison camp for Japanese-Americans and war captives, and at Browns Canyon in Colorado, a popular trout fishing and whitewater rafting destination.
The president likewise announced the Every Kid in a Park Initiative: All fourth graders and their families will get a year of free access to national parks, starting this fall.
“We want every fourth-grader to have the experience of getting out and discovering America,” Obama said. “We want them to see the outside of a classroom, too. See all the places that make America great. Put down the smartphone for a sec. Put away the video games. Breathe in some fresh air.”
Echoing Williams’ emphasis on youth education at both of her bird sanctuaries, Mike Daulton, Audubon’s vice president for government relations, applauds the new initiative. “A new generation of conservationists is waiting to emerge as they discover birds, other wildlife, and America’s great natural resources,” Daulton said in a statement. “We’re glad the White House agrees.”