Revitalizing a storied American neighborhood

February 01, 2017 | GET MORE : Community

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U.S. Bank Community Development Manager Eva Brown on the transformation of Chicago's historic Pullman area.

On Chicago's South Side, the Pullman neighborhood was once the home of the Pullman Car Co., which was the nation's largest employer of African Americans in the early 20th century. Porters working for Pullman were fundamental to the civil rights movement, and the company and union are credited with helping to establish the nation's black middle class. Rich in history and known for its hundreds of 19th-century row homes, President Barack Obama designated Pullman as a National Monument in 2015.

An integral part of Pullman's storied past has been its ability to adapt to the changing world which, in more recent years, dealt it a blow with the globalization of the industrial economy. Today, it's bouncing back and turning the page on its next chapter.

U.S. Bank Community Development Manager Eva Brown sat down to talk about the transformation.

What was Pullman like a decade ago?

Pullman has a rich history from being a company town for a railroad sleeping car manufacturer and home to the nation's first African American labor union. This neighborhood has been through many changes over the years. It suffered greatly from the loss of steel and manufacturing industries. A decade ago, it struggled with poverty and unemployment. It had become a food desert with no major supermarket in the immediate area, and very little retail to buy household goods.

What changes have taken place since then?

The massive redevelopment of a former Ryerson steel plant, dubbed Pullman Park, by nonprofit developer Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) is serving as a catalyst for the entire area's revitalization.

The redevelopment site was anchored with a Walmart, which provides the community with access to fresh foods and packaged goods at affordable prices. The Walmart alone has created at least 400 jobs, and spurred additional retail development including clothing stores, a gym and more.

It was followed by "The South Side Soap Box," Method Soap's first North American manufacturing facility and the world's first and only LEED platinum-certified plant in the industry. In addition, urban agriculture company Gotham Greens built the world's largest rooftop farm on Method's roof and produces over 10 million heads of leafy greens and herbs each year for local supermarkets, restaurants and food service customers. 

These projects and more have created more than 1,200 jobs in the last three years, and over 60 percent have gone to residents of the nearby predominantly African American neighborhoods.

Beyond jobs, CNI has developed more than 100 historic vacant row homes for low- to moderate-income families, and broke ground on a 138,000-square-foot community center that will accommodate year-round sports as well as adult fitness, community activities and meetings. 

With jobs, affordable housing and places to play, Pullman is slowly being revived and attracting new residents.

What sparked all this change?

Park Bank Initiatives, the former community development arm of Park National Bank, purchased the old Ryerson site with hopes of developing Pullman Park. After U.S. Bank acquired Park National Bank with the assistance of the FDIC in 2009, U.S. Bank spun off Park Bank Initiatives into Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives to continue with plans to revitalize several predominately African American neighborhoods in Chicago. Since then, U.S. Bank has worked hand-in-hand with CNI to create jobs, develop affordable housing and help scores of entrepreneurs. 

Why did U.S Bank want to be involved in the redevelopment of Pullman and surrounding neighborhoods such as Austin and Englewood?

We knew it was important to continue the work and mission of Park Bank Initiatives to redevelop economically-challenged neighborhoods in Chicago. Partnering with CNI to bring vital retail services, jobs, and affordable housing to underserved areas is a win for everyone involved. These efforts fit perfectly with our Community Possible giving platform focusing on creating opportunities for Work, Home and Play in our communities.

What further changes do you expect in the area?

There is still a vacant land managed by U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, a subsidiary of U.S. Bank, that is available for development. CNI, the master developer, is hoping that the addition of Method, Gotham Greens and a Whole Foods distribution center will attract more manufacturing and distribution companies. As these job opportunities grow, additional housing and retail development will surely follow.

Shera Dalin is a member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.