New Bill Could Weaken Protections for Pullman National Monument

Senator Durbin speaks at the groundbreaking for a new visitors center at the Pullman National Monument, Chicago, Illinois
Senator Durbin speaks at the groundbreaking for a new visitors center at the Pullman National Monument, Chicago, Illinois on Labor Day 2020.

CHICAGO —On Labor Day 2020, Senator Dick Durbin, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and other dignitaries were in Pullman to officially celebrate the groundbreaking for a new visitors center for the Pullman National Monument.

Amid the hoopla, Senator Durbin and Congresswoman Robin Kelly touted legislation (S. 2896) that would convert the “Pullman National Monument” into the “Pullman National Historical Park.” According to Kelly, this would be an even “higher distinction.”

But is this true?

It appears that S. 2896, which is currently in committee, could potentially undo the very protections President Obama put in place when he established the “Pullman National Monument” in 2015.

Map included as part of Presidential Proclamation 9233 indicating the Pullman “National Monument Boundary”

In the Monument’s establishing legislation, Proclamation 9233, President Obama is clear: the “object” to be protected is the “Pullman National Historic Landmark District.” He underscores this by repeatedly mentioning the District explicitly in the text. In addition, he includes a map as part of the Proclamation that indicates a “National Monument Boundary” that encompasses 203 acres of the District. This boundary is “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected within those boundaries.” Furthermore, he proclaims, “it is in the public interest to preserve and protect the historic objects in the Pullman Historic District, Chicago, Illinois.”

Therefore, it is evident that President Obama intended to protect all historic resources located within this boundary associated with the model Town of Pullman (1880–1907). Such protection is to be accomplished through a partnership. Federal, state, and local authorities are to cooperate with private organizations and individuals who own lands within this boundary. The shared goal is to ensure the historic resources of the District are preserved “for the benefit of present and future generations.”

The Proclamation directs the National Park Service to create a “General Management Plan” for the monument. This strategic plan is to set forth the vision and means for how the National Park Service will fulfill the legislated purposes of the monument, which are to…

(1) to preserve the historic resources; (2) to interpret the industrial history and labor struggles and achievements associated with the Pullman Company, including the rise and role of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; and (3) to interpret the history of urban planning and design of which the planned company town of Pullman is a nationally significant example.

Members of the Pullman National Monument Preservation Society leading “The Great Pullman Strike Tour” on the 125th Anniversary of the Pullman Strike of 1894

Pullman’s designation as a national monument affords it protection. Should someone contravene the legislated purposes of the monument, Proclamation 9233 could prove an able cudgel.

The Proclamation could be invoked to beat back those who would seek to harm Pullman’s historic resources. For example, should someone attempt to demolish a historic Pullman building within the “National Monument Boundary,” private property owners or private organizations could sue to prevent it. Likewise, the National Park Service could, as a last resort, invoke its authority condemn and take private lands to “to prevent imminent damage or unacceptable threats to park resources and values.” With the powerful tool President Obama bequeathed us, organizations like ours, The Pullman National Monument Preservation Society, and private citizens can protect Pullman when necessary.

But Durbin’s proposed legislation would leave us empty-handed. It could make it nearly impossible to protect Pullman’s unified architectural design and its sensitive historic and archaeological sites.

While some claim the legislation is merely a “name change,” the reality is that it strips protections for many historic resources in the District. Rather than protect all of Pullman’s historic resources as the Proclamation intends, Durbin’s legislation states only “significant architectural structures” are protected in the park. In addition, the legislation does not specify who shall determine which structures are “significant,” nor which criteria will be used to assess significance.

Worse still, it erases President Obama’s “National Monument Boundary.” In its place, a new boundary is to be determined by the Secretary of the Interior. This substitutes President Obama’s discretion for the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior, whoever this may be when this legislation is ultimately passed.

Should the Secretary of the Interior choose to shrink the boundary to only include federal and state lands, the District’s historic resources would be further threatened. Political and private interests could then move to demolish historic Pullman buildings, obliterate archaeological sites, and construct housing and businesses incompatible with the legislated purposes for which the monument was established. Little could be done to stop them. Generations of Chicagoans can attest to how recklessly Chicago razes its architectural heritage.

Durbin’s legislation as currently written could encourage destruction of Pullman’s historic resources at a time when we should be ensuring their preservation, restoration, and interpretation. It would undermine the public interest in the monument that President Obama declared to be the “dominant reservation” of these lands. Over time, Pullman’s historic resources would likely be whittled away, brick-by-brick and stone-by-stone.

In short, Durbin’s “Pullman National Historical Park” bill could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It appears to do little more than permanently codify a lack of protections for Pullman’s historic resources. Read it.

This “conversion” of Pullman from national monument to national historical park is unnecessary and potentially harmful.

It undoes the will of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President and contravenes the very purposes for which the monument was established.

Senator Durbin, let the Pullman National Monument be.

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