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Pullman Community Conversation

This article is part of a new effort by the Chicago Arts Archive to cover the development of the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan as well as the legacy of the previous 1986 plan. In the coming weeks and months we will be publishing articles on the 2012 planning process and the successes and failures of the 1986 plan. To see our previous articles, click here.

“What is seen in a walk or drive through the streets [of Pullman] is so pleasing to the eye that a woman’s first exclamation is certain to be, ‘Perfectly lovely!’ It is indeed a sight as rare as it is delightful.”- Richard T. Ely, Harpers 1885

On April 4th the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Event (DCASE) convened its final Neighborhood Cultural Conversation in that same perfectly lovely neighborhood. The topic of discussion was the cultural needs of Pullman and the surrounding areas like South Deering and Hegewisch. Located at the far southeast corner of Chicago, these neighborhoods sit over thirteen miles from the Loop. In addition, they are over four miles east of the nearest arts center, located in the Beverly neighborhood. I was curious. What would the cultural infrastructure be in this corner of Chicago? How would their needs differ from other neighborhoods? With these questions in mind, I headed down to the 117-year-old Pullman Clock Tower, where the meeting was held.

Arthur Pearson, Pullman resident and descendent of the original inhabitants of the once independent town, opened the meeting. He spoke briefly on the history of Pullman as a 19th century planned community by George Pullman, president of the eponymous train car company. “We’re here to talk about the arts today and it’s good to be doing that [here] because this building back in the 1880’s is where art happened. Pullman hired an extraordinary number of skilled artists, artisans, and craftsmen to make these beautiful [train cars]. Why did he do this? George Pullman in his own words believed that, “beauty has an ennobling and refining power to make people better.” I think all of us involved in the arts believe in the transformative power of art, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.”

Six Cultural Priorities

After an introduction to the Chicago Cultural Plan by Julie Burroughs of DCASE, Joy Bailey, planner from Lord Cultural Resources introduced the plan’s six cultural priorities. Each had been distilled from the numerous needs expressed by residents at the city’s four town hall meetings. They were:

Pullman Clock Tower, Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo Credit: Zachary Johnson)

1. Increase cultural participation by increasing accessibility.
Explained as what inspires someone to participate in culture and conversely, what prevents them. Transportation, lack of awareness, safety issues, and cost were all raised as examples of what could prevent participation.

2. K-12 arts education
Mentioned as the most popular issue at the town hall and community meetings.

3. Cross-pollinate culture across the city.
Explained as how different cultural initiatives in different Chicago areas influence and connect with each other. As well as, how businesses influence and connect with culture and vice-versa.

4. Strengthen the capacity within the cultural sector.
Explained as making the city a more favorable place for culture to strive, survive, and grow – creating a friendly environment for culture.

5. Ensure vibrant cultural spaces for cultural organizations, groups, artists, and neighborhoods. 

6. Attract and retain artists through a priority on sustainability.

We were then all told to vote on which issues we would most like to discuss. Each of us could only vote for two of the six topics. The plan was to break us up into three groups based on the voting, but due to a tie, we were broken into four groups instead. The topics for discussion were: Increasing cultural participation by increasing accessibility, ensuring vibrant cultural spaces, attracting and retaining artists, and K-12 arts education– the landslide winner.

Rating our Communities

I chose to join the discussion on attracting and retaining artists, as I viewed it as the most complex issue to solve. It also turned out to be the smallest group, chosen by eight people of the estimated eighty in the room. We were facilitated by Joy Bailey of Lord Cultural Resources. Of the eight of us, there were four residents from Pullman, one from Pilsen, one from Chatham, one from Auburn Gresham, and myself, formerly of Hyde Park but now residing in Ukrainian Village. We were first asked to give a letter grade to our neighborhoods based on their cultural vitality.

The woman from Pilsen rated her neighborhood as a B+ or A, citing the affordability, ease of transportation, and openness of residents and businesses to letting artists show their work, among other things. The letter grades then dropped sharply. The woman from Chatham gave her neighborhood a D. She said there are no entertainment or arts-oriented spaces there. There is disposable income, but people leave the community to spend money on cultural activities. The story from Auburn Gresham was similar. It received an F. The woman commented, “Culture’s not there. It’s not promoted there, it’s not instigated there, it’s not exposed. There are little pockets of people who are artists but they are doing things elsewhere. I wonder, do people really think there’s a need for [culture] there?”

The residents of Pullman had similar responses. They gave their neighborhood two C’s, an F, and an incomplete, commenting on the island effect of their isolated community of 9,000 residents, the limited resources, and lack of opportunities to see and appreciate the arts. A lack of venues for the arts came up as well, due to the fact that Pullman is entirely residential outside of its historic sites, a tiny corner store, and an old diner.

At the same time, they brought up the enthusiasm and spirit of the community as strengths, with one woman giving it a C for community spirit and another an A for effort. “It could be great”, said the SAIC grad and Pullman resident in the group. “There are a lot of parks and materials, but how do you energize it?”

Successful Arts Communities and The Need for Space

Next we were asked to discuss other communities that have cultural ideas and models that could be emulated in our areas. Group

One group discusses the challenges of their neighborhoods, Pullman, Chicago, IL. 2012. (Photo courtesy of DCASE).

members brought up Santa Fe; Long Beach, California; London; Baltimore; and Batavia, Illinois, citing free opportunities for artists to perform and show work and support given to individual artists. “I don’t want to have to go Hyde Park or way east or up north in order to pay $500 to participate in an event where I might make my money back. Things [need to be more] affordable and more accommodating. I know I have to do my work, but I just wish things were more welcoming and more open, especially to the individual artist,” expressed the woman from Auburn Gresham.

The conversation quickly turned to a discussion of venues for artists. According to the residents, Pullman, Chatham, and Auburn Gresham are alike in that they do not have places for artists to show their work, or even to meet up and exchange ideas. One resident commented on her community’s lack of cultural infrastructure by saying, “Pilsen and Hyde Park have this infrastructure that we don’t have. You could build that here, bring commerce, etc., or work with what you have and be unconventional — use all this residential space in a new way.”

Each resident chose an arts space as the top priority for attracting and sustaining artists. People expressed a need for the city to take a different stance on vacant spaces and allow communities to use those for the arts. “A space comes first and everything else has to grow out of those relationships and ideas,” stated one group member.


After a half an hour, our time was up, and the four groups came together to share summaries of their sessions. The group interested in fully funded K-12 arts education brought up a lack of space and resources as issues, in addition to a lack of community buy-in. “Kids need to turn violence into creative energy,” the speaker expressed.

The group who discussed increasing accessibility to the arts, mentioned a need to know what’s available to them and a way to learn what other groups are doing and share ideas with them. They also stressed a need for safe, welcoming environments to share ideas. Transportation was brought up as a perennial problem. Similar ideas were raised by the group focusing on vibrant cultural spaces. The group brought up Hyde Park, Bronzeville, and Pilsen as neighborhoods with strong arts spaces, and expressed that they are in need of safe, public spaces that people can use. Finally, our group presented a summation of our issues: the need for places to show work, perform, and to share ideas; a desire to make use of vacant spaces; decentralized workshops for artists; and the need for city support.

Julie Burroughs wrapped up the meeting by taking questions and stressing that DCASE is asking themselves how can the city support people and their efforts, as well as looking for ways the city can get out of the way to make things easier. Just like the speakers at the town hall meeting in Pilsen, she stressed that budgets are tight so they are looking to create a cultural plan that makes the biggest impact most efficiently and identifies communities’ top needs and priorities. She then informed us that the next step in the planning process is the ground-truthing meetings to be held in the summer. After the first draft of the cultural plan has been developed, it will be brought back to the community in these meetings so that they can weigh in on what works and what needs to be changed.

As I rode north on Lake Shore Drive with my group member from Pilsen and a man I met from Rogers Park, we wondered aloud whether things would turn around for the far south neighborhoods. It’s going to be hard work creating a supportive arts community from the ground up, we discussed. It’s clear that DCASE cannot afford to financially support new initiatives across the city. It will take a lot of hard work and energy from residents, coupled with whatever new support the city can provide. The cultural plan is a step in the right direction; I only hope residents can take the next ones.

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3 Responses to " Pullman Community Conversation "

  1. As a Pullman homeowner/ photographer/collagist who studied at the Art Institute and got my design degree at the Institute Of Design I can only quote from the Kinks’ song “Low Budget”…”art takes time, time is money, money’s scarce and that ain’t funny!”

  2. jb says:

    Pullman is filled with possibility… from preserving it’s incredible and historically significant architecture and history as an industrialists vision of “the world most perfect town” (which it’s scale and function still offer a wonderfully unique community platform to live in)… to the reinterpretation of the original utopian quest into contemporary ideals of community organic food gardens, artspaces, reuse of old structures and new ideas. Such a ripe place with room for so many concerns all working together… and the in-between (the “now” between what was and what will be) is just plain juicy.

  3. Lynn Smith says:

    I really like both of the comments posted above, and
    especially buy into ” the reinterpretation of the original utopian quest” , going back to the comments mentioned in the original article- from Arthur Pearson of the quest for “beauty”- We have an opportunity here to meld art, history, and an urban nature- ecology site in the city! What’s not to like about that! People are always drawn to beauty – and I believe that all of the above, could also work in tandem with possible long term plans for an urban National Park. They do not have to be mutually exclusive…

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