The tour buses constantly arrive in Pullman, loaded with members of suburban school groups and seniors clubs. Passengers stumble off the buses bewildered, gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the ancient brick structures astride the oak-lined streets.
Then comes the inevitable first question. "They look at the houses and say, 'People don't really live in them, do they?' said Pullman resident Tom Shepherd. "And we say, 'Yes we do live in these. I'm over on the next block. It's not a museum.' "
No, it's not a museum, at least not in the sense of a brick-and-mortar edifice housing exhibits. But few museums could be more captivating. And the astonishment of the tourists is appropriate, for Pullman looks like it was snatched from the Victorian Age and plunked down whole in this corner of 21st-Century Chicago's South Side.
This was, after all, America's first planned model industrial town, created by railroad car magnate George Pullman in the 1880s, later annexed into and swallowed up by the booming Windy City, saved from the wrecking ball by the valiant efforts of residents in 1960, and awarded national landmark status in the early 1970s.
Among today's Pullman residents, not everyone is conversant in the historical details of the rise and decline of Pullman's planned enclave, nor can all cite chapter and verse regarding the community's pivotal role in the American labor movement. But most are respectful of its history, and many are active in championing and preserving its heritage through their participation in groups like the Pullman Civic Organization, the Historic Pullman Foundation and the Historic Pullman Garden Club.
And if many of them seem to feel blessed to have landed in this unique community, either by birth or discovery, it's simply because the neighborhood is as warm and welcoming, convenient and vibrant as it is historically important, they say.
Many communities are said to be close-knit, but you don't know the meaning of the term until you live in Pullman, particularly in the Pullman Historic District from 111th to 115th Streets and from Langley to Cottage Grove Avenues, Shepherd said. Many residents live in the old "workers' cottages" created by Pullman for his non-skilled labor, which are actually rowhouses or town houses about 16 feet wide. "There's a camaraderie around here you don't find in other parts of the city," said Shepherd. "Here you know your neighbors, and everyone says 'hello.' Because we're so close together in rowhouses, and joined building to building, there's something about that that brings us together."
Lifelong resident DeeDee Fabris, a tour coordinator for the Historic Pullman Foundation, says that esprit de corps is evident on the streets every day. "If you're out walking your dog, you might have planned on a 15- to 20-minute walk," she said. "But you come home an hour or an hour and a half later, because of all the people you've met and talked to along the way. So you allow for extra time."
Though it's been 120 years since Pullman was its own entity separate from Chicago, residents still sort of think of it as such. "People refer to Pullman as a town; we're a little odd that way," said Drew Sexton, president of the Pullman Civic Organization, who views it as a small town in the midst of a modern city. "You walk down the street and somebody will offer you a piece of pie, or a plant from their garden."
Even if it's more than a dozen miles south of State and Madison, Pullman is also convenient, especially if you commute downtown or to other South Side neighborhoods. According to Coldwell Banker Realtor Julie Quiroz, whose parents are third- and fourth-generation Pullman residents, the Kensington/115th Street Metra station is a 21-minute train ride from the Van Buren stop in the Loop. To the University of Chicago and Hyde Park, it's just 10 minutes, she added.
Other amenities are much closer at hand. Harborside International Golf Center is a five-minute drive across the Bishop Ford Expressway. The House of Hope, a 10,000-seat worship and assembly facility staging concerts and special events, is perched on Pullman's southeast side, near the intersection of 115th Street and the Bishop Ford.
Residents are typically content to stay close to Pullman, because the community-minded can find lots to do here. Many activities and events are convened at the Hotel Florence, which remains every bit the centerpiece it was during George Pullman's day.
A prime example is the Victorian Tea, which is held at the hotel every year on the Sunday after Labor Day and sells out well in advance, said Sue James, vice president of the Historic Pullman Garden Club, which sponsors the event.
"The reason the tea party was started was to reach out to people and tell them about Pullman and its real estate," James said. "And to say yes, we're on the South Side, but this is a lively, vibrant community with lots going on."
Other yearly events, she said, include the Historic Pullman Garden Walk held the Saturday before Father's Day; the Historic Pullman House Tour the second weekend of October; and the Candlelight Christmas Walk in early December. A one-of-a-kind yearly occasion is the Hobo Fest, in which hobos from around the Midwest ride the rails into Pullman, overnight in Arcade Park or backyards, sup on a communal spaghetti dinner and put on an evening of entertainment playing harmonicas, fiddles and banjos, and demonstrating crafts like whittling, Shepherd said.
But it's the 1880s residences that are Pullman's defining trademark. About 1,800 were built, said Michael Symanski, Historic Pullman Foundation's president. And in the district, about 98 percent of the homes still exist, Sexton said.
The lower end consists of charming, 16-foot-wide, two-story single-family homes, Quiroz said. On the high end are three-story executive mansions, with parlors, 10-foot ceilings, fireplaces and elaborate woodwork, most of them still boasting their original features. Many of the homes have been "pristinely restored," Shymanski said, but Quiroz reports about 70 percent remain unrestored.
Prices range from low- to mid-$100,000s to $400,000, she added.
Pullman is not for everyone. Nary a supermarket's in sight, it's a long way from Gold Coast glitz, and North Siders would find the lack of beaneries and bars unsettling. Drive the hushed nighttime streets and "you could hear a pin drop," Quiroz said.
But how many elsewhere can say their neighborhood is part of history lessons? "Students are studying Pullman today, and there are not a lot of places you can go and actually see what you're studying about," Fabris said. "It's still here."