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Chicago's Historic Pullman District Becomes National Monument


President Obama returned to Chicago today to make an announcement in his hometown. The historic Southside neighborhood where he worked as a community organizer is now a new national monument along with two other sites in Hawaii and Colorado. The president also announced another initiative to allow some children and their families free admission to national parks. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: President Obama was in town, ostensibly to talk about parks and monuments. But sub-zero temperatures meant this would be no outdoors affair. The president joked about the weather, but in a nod to spring, he announced a new initiative that will allow fourth-graders and their parents to travel to the national parks for free for a year.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We want every fourth-grader to have the experience of getting out and discovering America. We want them to see the outside of a classroom, too - see all the places that make America great.

CORLEY: Next, the announcement that many had been waiting for - the national recognition of three historic sites. A new national monument in Hawaii not far from Pearl Harbor is the site where Japanese-Americans and others were held captive in internment camps during World War II. Colorado's Browns Canyon has a rugged landscape of cliffs, forests and meadows in the Rocky Mountains - and Chicago's historic Pullman District.


OBAMA: So the site is at the heart of what would become America's labor movement and as a consequence, at the heart of what would become America's middle class.

CORLEY: The Pullman neighborhood is located on Chicago's far-Southside, about 15 miles from downtown. It's a neighborhood where the president worked as a community organizer. In the late 1800s, it was the country's first planned company town, created by industrialist George Pullman. Thousands of workers once built luxury railroad sleeping cars at the now defunct Pullman Palace Car Company.

MIKE WAGENBACH: The state of Illinois has stabilized the structures.

CORLEY: Mike Wagenbach, a state supervisor for the Pullman site, is standing in one of the cavernous and worn factory wings. This is where a workers' strike in 1894 spread into the country's first industry-wide national walkout. Pullman made history again by hiring recently freed slaves to serve as Pullman Porters. They'd go on to play a major role in the rise of the black middle class and form the country's first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The union, led by A. Phillip Randolph, would win a historic labor agreement and help launch the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

LINDA BULLEN: The room we're standing in currently - it was the originally the billiards room.

CORLEY: Linda Bullen is curator for Pullman's historic Florence Hotel. Outside its stained-glass windows are hundreds of rowhouses - private homes now - that used to house Pullman workers.

BULLEN: So the bigger houses, which were the executive houses or skilled craftsmen, are closest to the factory. Those people had the shortest walk to work. And as you get further away, the houses get smaller and smaller.

CORLEY: Residents of Pullman and city officials have pushed for decades for recognition of the neighborhood. In recent years, Pullman, long on the decline, has been on the rebound. There's a new grocery store, even a manufacturer. And Chicago alderman Anthony Beale says the national monument status will accelerate ongoing developing efforts.

ANTHONY BEALE: Restaurants, hotel chains, more stores that are going to be coming into the area, shops.

CORLEY: The national monument status is a first for the city of Chicago. With the addition of the sites in Hawaii and Colorado, President Obama has used his executive authority to establish or expand a total of 16 national monuments. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.