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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 7-32

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Rethinking Pullman:
Urban Space and Working-Class Activism

Janice L. Reiff *

For the residents of the former model town of Pullman, Illinois, 1994 was an important year. In May, 100 years earlier, a strike had broken out that pitted workers at the Pullman Car Works against George M. Pullman and the company that bore his name. Before the strike finally collapsed in August, it shut down railroad traffic across much of America, brought federal troops into Chicago and cities as far away as Los Angeles, and led to the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs, the president of the American Railway Union (ARU). It [End Page 7] also brought to a close the long-standing debate on the most famous of the company’s social experiments: the model town located on Chicago’s far south side. Since 1880, George Pullman had trumpeted the architecturally and socially crafted town and life inside it as solutions for the problems of urban, industrial America, and large numbers of observers had concurred with that evaluation (Wright 1884; Smith 1995: 177–270; Reiff and Hirsch 1989: 104–6). For almost as long, its critics had excoriated the town as representing the worst excesses of a capitalist society where one man and his company could dominate every aspect of a worker’s life in their dual roles as landlord and employer (Ely 1885; Carwardine 1973 [1894]). For most observers during the summer of 1894, the bitterness of the strike proved the former vision untrue. George Pullman’s well-publicized intransigence confirmed the latter, even to those who had little sympathy for workers or their demands.

One hundred years later, the people living in the same brick homes conceived by George Pullman and designed by Solon Beman used that history and the debates over the model town for purposes as current as those of the Pullman workers in 1894. That they chose to use the past was nothing new. Workers at the Pullman Car Works had looked back to 1894 when they honored Debs by naming their local of the United Steel Workers of America after him, an action encouraged by historian Almont Lindsey’s 1936 dissertation and 1942 book, which appeared at the beginning and conclusion of the successful organization in the works of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). In 1960, Pullman residents had fought off the city’s wrecking ball by insisting on the town’s historical importance, an importance validated by Stanley Buder’s famous 1967 book on Pullman and the community’s designation as a National Landmark District in 1971.

What was most interesting about the 1994 activities was that, in reusing the space and history of Pullman, residents redefined both in ways that suggest why it is important for historians to begin to reconsider space in their analysis of working-class activism. Two instances from that centennial year stand out most clearly in this respect. The first was the effort to have North Pullman, the area containing Pullman homes located north of the car works, designated as a City of Chicago Landmark District. The second was the Chicago Labor Day observance that took place in the model town.

Although part of the National Landmark District, North Pullman was not included when the city of Chicago named South Pullman as a city landmark [End Page 8] district in 1972. Always less well built and maintained than the area south of the car works, it had not enjoyed the benefits the city landmark designation had afforded South Pullman. Realizing its potential value, community organizers in the more northerly section decided in the late 1980s to pursue a city designation of their own. To that end, the residents of North Pullman, virtually all of whom are African American, tied their campaign to two very different Pullman histories. The first they shared geographically and architecturally with South Pullman and had included North Pullman in the national historic district designation: the model town built for the company’s manufacturing workers and the strike that took place there. The other...


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