Credit: Chicago Neighborhood Initiative

In metropolitan regions across the U.S., you’ll see remarkably similar patterns of inequity, in which a “favored quarter” attracts wealth like a magnet. Economically thriving neighborhoods—where you find coffee shops, start-up businesses, and top-ranked schools—begin downtown and fan out in one direction toward the ritziest suburbs. Think north in Atlanta and Dallas. West in Houston and St. Louis. Southwest in Minneapolis. East in Cincinnati. Northeast in Phoenix.

Chicago offers perhaps the most dramatic example. “Of 53 construction cranes currently at work in the city, only one is south of 22nd Street,” David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) and former CEO of the Chicago Park District, noted last summer.

Local planner Pete Saunders divides the city into “New” Chicago and “Old” Chicago. New Chicago—the North and Northwest neighborhoods—is a “business service hub, a global financial center, and an emerging tech center, with a strong desire to be the greenest and most sustainable city in America.” Even with the city’s outsized reputation for homicide, murder rates in many neighborhoods on the North Side are among the lowest in urban North America.

Chicago’s South and West Sides—Old Chicago—are a different story. Plagued by crime, unemployment, and economic disinvestment, “Old Chicago has struggled to recover from severe deindustrialization over the past fifty years,” Saunders said. As in many other cities facing stark geographic divides, race is the critical factor. While the prosperous North Side is largely white, the struggling South and West Sides are heavily African American and Latino. There’s no doubt that generations of racism and exclusion have left visible scars on the city’s development.

These “unfavored” sections of American cities aren’t just stray pockets of neglect. They represent half or more of the landmass of these cities. And rather than simply failing to keep up with progress in the favored quarters, many are continuing to lose residents and economic activity. The differences between the favored and unfavored portions are so vast and stark that some experts have raised questions about whether the much-ballyhooed revival of America’s cities isn’t something of a mirage.

Yet one lower-income South Side neighborhood manages to defy the ironclad logic of the favored quarter: historic Pullman, a vibrant enclave in the middle of the South Side that is home to equal numbers of African Americans, Latinos, and whites. (Not all South and West neighborhoods are poor, but most of those doing well economically—Hyde Park, the Near West Side, Bridgeport, and Beverly—are predominantly white and Asian.)

Only a die-hard urban antagonist can deny that America’s cities are flourishing to a degree not seen since at least World War II. But evidence of progress is not apparent everywhere. Huge swaths of cities are bereft of any uptick in commercial activity or refurbished housing.

Strolling down Pullman’s St. Lawrence Avenue, whose shaded sidewalks are fronted by side-by-side duplexes, you notice the same redbrick charm that characterizes the North Side. Yet in Pullman, you can land a well-kept three-bedroom duplex down the block from a cozy café and around the corner from one of the city’s top-rated public elementary schools at a price that wouldn’t go far in swank precincts across town. Residents enjoy many of the conveniences of North Side living, too. At the new Pullman Park development, there’s a Walmart (watering this former food desert), a clothing store, a Planet Fitness health club, a locally owned dry cleaners, and Pullman’s first sit-down restaurant in decades.

The relative peace and prosperity of Pullman in the midst of the hard-hit South Side highlights the promise of “asset-based” community development—the idea that focusing on the strengths of a particular place is just as important as targeting the problems. This model offers practical lessons for other neighborhoods across the country suffering from economic disinvestment and social unraveling. In Pullman’s case, a remarkable degree of resilience has arisen from these assets: high levels of civic engagement; a physical environment that encourages walking and social interaction; access to resources tied to historic preservation; and an ambitious community developer planting stakes in the neighborhood.

If the name Pullman sounds vaguely familiar, it’s likely because of the legendary railroad sleeping cars built here from 1881 to 1955. Pullman was no grimy slum, but actually one of the most celebrated urban planning projects of the nineteenth century—providing a good place to live was part of owner George Pullman’s mission to elevate the character of his workers. The London Times declared the elegant public buildings and squares flanked by single-family homes for managers and handsome brick townhouses for workers “the most perfect town in the world.” The other reason you may have heard of Pullman is that in 1894 the company’s workers responded to wage cuts with no reduction in rent at company-owned housing with a historic strike.

This architectural legacy is important to Pullman’s sense of identity, which has helped fuel its revitalization. Although the Pullman company pulled out decades ago, some of the factory buildings and most of the houses still survive intact and have long been a rallying point of community pride. In 1960, when the city announced plans to bulldoze the neighborhood to build an industrial park, the Pullman Civic Organization (PCO) was mobilized to stop the project. Through the years, this group has succeeded in getting Pullman declared a national and state historical landmark and finally, in 2015, a National Historic Monument.

“The community bonded together to get the Park Service and President Obama to declare it a monument,” said Kathy Schneider, the National Park Service superintendent for the Pullman Monument—203 acres covering the factory site, the historic town center, and adjacent worker housing. They made the case based on the neighborhood’s historic value as one of America’s first planned communities, as the home of the innovative Pullman sleeping car, as the site of one of the most famous labor-management battles in U.S. history, and for its strong connection to African American sleeping car porters, who organized the first national black-led labor union and played a role in forging the civil rights movement.

The enduring campaign to protect and celebrate their community instilled a strong spirit of civic involvement in local residents, which helped spare the neighborhood from the decline that engulfed surrounding areas. “We’ve been identifying and protecting our assets for years—even when people from outside of the community claimed we had no assets, or didn’t appreciate the assets that we have,” recounts Arthur Pearson, who moved here from the North Side twenty years ago.

When problems arise, the PCO becomes the vehicle for taking swift action. “The ethos of this community is that people show up,” Pearson adds, noting that neighbors rallied to fight Pullman Elementary School from being closed and to keep a historic clock tower on the factory site from being torn down after a 1998 fire.

Beyond sturdy local institutions, Pullman benefits from the informal connections forged by residents. Rachel Smith, a professional fund-raiser who relocated from Hyde Park because it was more affordable, says, “We love how active so many of the people are here.”

Smith is the first African American PCO president anyone can remember. “The diversity you see now is fairly new,” she said. “There was an effort to keep people of color out of Pullman, but now it’s a melting pot of all kinds of people,” Smith adds.

The recognition of Pullman’s historic status was more than a source of community spirit—it brought in much-needed dollars. Some of the benefits are direct. Under Illinois state law, for example, homeowner improvements in areas designated as state historical districts get property taxes frozen for eight years. The savings have been a boon for residents such as Arthur Pearson, whose Swedish immigrant grandfather worked at the Pullman factory. “I’ve made significant investments in restoring my historic home,” he said.

The National Park Service also offers a 20 percent income tax credit for rehabilitation of properties deemed historic by the Interior Department, which ignites the interest of private developers. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this program (on the chopping block in the Republicans’ tax bill passed by the House) is a great deal for the federal government, with every dollar of tax credits bringing in at least $1.20 to the federal treasury from new economic activity. One study of ten new National Monuments shows that communities were able to boost local economic activity by $15.6 million on average, including $5.8 million in additional labor income.

Pullman’s historic character, even before National Monument status, also attracted increased philanthropic funding as well as private investment. Among the neighborhood’s consistent benefactors has been the Chicago-based Driehaus Foundation. “It has the potential to serve as a model for the redevelopment of urban areas rooted in history,” said the foundation’s executive director, Kim Coventry.

Traffic is brisk on Pullman’s sidewalks on a late-summer evening, and even an out-of-towner gets hellos from people on their porches. “It can take forty-five minutes to mail a letter at the corner mailbox because you have conversations with so many people,” says Arlene Echols, a flight attendant who grew up on the South Side.

On top of community cohesion and convenience, Pullman’s friendly walking environment is a key element of its social and economic progress. Indeed, the National Association of Realtors’ most recent community preference survey found that 85 percent of Americans want to live near good places to walk—the highest-ranked asset for a prospective neighborhood.

The relative peace and prosperity of Pullman in the midst of the hard-hit South Side highlights the promise of “asset-based” community development—the idea that focusing on the strengths of a particular place is just as important as targeting the problems.

In Pullman, jobs, shopping, schools, recreation, transit connections, a bank, and congenial gathering spots are all within strolling distance. It’s a short trot to the Pullman Cafe, a Metra commuter train line, a bike shop, an architecturally stunning community church, and the Pullman Park shopping center and industrial park. Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives is constructing storefront space for restaurants and retail on 111th Street to enhance the pedestrian environment between the historic neighborhood and Pullman Park. While not loved by everyone in Pullman, the presence of Walmart means you don’t have to travel miles by transit or car to find a quart of milk, drug prescriptions, school supplies, and other everyday needs.

Busy sidewalks also keep the neighborhood’s public spaces—Arcade Park, the community’s original town green; Market Square, which resembles a plaza out of a European capital; and a neighborhood playground—
lively and safe gathering spots. “The way the neighborhood is designed, you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” observes resident Andrew Bullen. “It’s got a communal feel.”

The assets Pullman had to offer—its historic status and the tax credits that came with it; its strong local leadership and a can-do attitude; its walkability and high levels of social interaction; plus proximity to transportation, available vacant land, and access to a skilled workforce—helped draw in another essential ingredient in its success: a community developer determined to make the neighborhood a launching pad for its efforts to stabilize the city’s South Side.

A nonprofit organization founded seven years ago, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives so far has attracted investments of more than $225 million to the community and added more than 1,100 new jobs. CNI’s first step was to attend more than sixty community planning meetings and host three workshops in 2010–11 to collaborate with residents, listening to what amenities and services they wanted for their neighborhood. “What we heard, loud and clear, was the need for more jobs, more retail options, more recreation opportunities, and more senior housing,” said CNI president David Doig.

What has not happened in Pullman is the displacement of lower- and middle-income residents. That’s because the focus on community development is to serve the area’s existing residents.

Since then, CNI, with its community partners, has renovated hundreds of homes, launched a micro-finance program to jump-start small businesses, and developed the Pullman Park industrial and shopping center on the site of a former steel mill. In addition to the jobs at Walmart and surrounding retail stores, the new development has brought in employers such as a natural cleaning products manufacturer, a rooftop commercial greenhouse, and a soon-to-open Whole Foods distribution center. CNI also built a new indoor community recreation center nearby and is working with the National Park Service to transform Pullman’s historic clock tower building on the factory site into a visitors’ center for the National Monument (a project that may be delayed, following recent revelations of higher-than-expected toxic materials in the soil and groundwater).

Among CNI’s renovation projects are a number of nineteenth-century townhouses in North Pullman, where homes are smaller and farther from the neighborhood center. This part of the neighborhood was not included in the original 1970 historic district, and the foreclosure crisis hit big here in 2008.

“When we bought this building, the block was full of drug dealers, with a liquor store on the corner that was a constant source of problems,” Doig says, standing in front of one nearly finished project. “So we bought the liquor store and tore it down, putting in the community garden you see now.” At-risk local kids were trained to do all the demolition and cleanup.

CNI is also working with Pullman Arts, a neighborhood group refurbishing two historic apartment buildings and building a new one to create thirty-eight affordable live/work units for artists. CPO president Rachel Smith has big plans for this space. “I can see Pullman being a hub for the arts with a festival celebrating the culture of the South Side,” she said.

What has not happened in Pullman, however, is the displacement of lower- and middle-income residents. That’s because the focus on community development is to serve the area’s existing residents. When Walmart was looking to locate inside Chicago six years ago, for example, CNI and the Pullman community were able to negotiate the first-ever community benefits package with the mega-retailer, stipulating a $10-an-hour minimum wage, $25 million for job opportunities and training for neighborhood youth, a green rooftop, and a commitment that union labor would construct all future Walmart stores in Chicago.

Likewise, at the Method factory, where more than thirty million bottles of natural cleaning products are produced, 65 percent of the facility’s eighty-seven workers live nearby. Proof that you live in one of two local zip codes, plus a high school diploma or GED, automatically gets you a job interview at the plant.

Gentrification ranks far below many other issues as a concern to Pullman residents with whom I spoke, even with recent research from Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council showing that the number of households earning more than $100,000 has risen 58 percent since 2008. That’s because it amounts to only 9 percent of households in what is still a very racially mixed neighborhood.

CNI aims to recreate what’s happening to Pullman in other South Side neighborhoods. They brought a Whole Foods store and local Mariano’s supermarkets to two other neighborhoods that were food deserts, and are developing or expanding a year-round community center, a community hospital, a neighborhood health center, a Salvation Army center, a charter school network, and a domestic violence center in other disinvested South Side communities.

Pullman’s success also brings a new perspective to a heated debate now under way about America’s urban future. Both sides are poring over census figures, real estate sales, and public opinion surveys of Millennials to determine whether U.S. cities are undergoing a full-blooming renaissance. The prevalence of construction cranes and skyrocketing real estate prices in and around many downtowns unmistakably shows that something’s up. Loft apartments and freshly painted bikeways are now part of the social fabric in places like Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Boise, and Greenville, South Carolina—not just the glamour capitals of the coasts.

But the real point of contention is whether this is a blip stemming from the 2008 real estate collapse abetted by a short-lived demographic bulge of young people in their most city-happy years. After all, the urban renaissance predicted in the late 1970s, when out-of-the-nest Baby Boomers migrated to funky studio apartments, left few lasting traces, aside from a few gentrified neighborhoods in bigger cities.

The New York Times’s Upshot column has already declared that we’ve reached “Peak Millennial,” meaning that Kendrick Lamar and Arcade Fire fans will soon join earlier devotees of Public Enemy, the Ramones, and the Grateful Dead out in the suburbs. Some skeptics claim that the entire urban resurgence is a delusion—neither Millennials nor empty-nest Boomers are flocking to reincarnated center cities at anywhere near the pace reported in lifestyle publications.

Yet many dispute these naysayers, explaining that the revival of cities extends beyond downtowns to include neighborhoods (and even some suburbs) that offer urbane qualities such as busy sidewalks, convenient transit, buzzing local business districts, inviting public spaces, and a village atmosphere where you can spontaneously interact with neighbors.

So who’s right?

Maybe both sides. Only a die-hard urban antagonist can deny that America’s cities are flourishing to a degree not seen since at least World War II. But evidence of progress is not apparent everywhere. Many low-income neighborhoods are bereft of any uptick in commercial activity or refurbished housing.

Indeed, Pullman is not alone as an example of a thriving neighborhood far from the “favored quarter.” Residents from all walks of life coexist in Denver’s River North arts district (RiNo), where Joe’s Liquor Store and MANNA Pilates are just a block apart on Larimer Street. Extended Latino families sit on their porches while hipsters walk past with their pit bulls.

And Northeast Minneapolis, a blue-collar eastern European enclave until the 1990s, retains the village feel of an ethnic neighborhood but with a more diverse cast of residents—artists, students, African Americans, Latinos, and many young families. Homegrown revitalization came gradually—art galleries and vintage stores popping up, trivia nights and indie rock replacing polka bands at corner bars.

The urban renaissance so far has not bridged the chasm between affluent and those left behind in inner cities. Many of America’s cities are experiencing the best of times and the worst of times, in Charles Dickens’s words. But a place like Pullman shows that it is possible to create a tale of one unified city, in which prosperity and social well-being flow in all directions.

Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a Minneapolis-based writer, speaker, and community consultant.