CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago's deep labor history was celebrated Monday morning as a groundbreaking ceremony for the Pullman National Monument campus was held on the Far South Side. By next year, it should be serving as the centerpiece of America's newest national park.
The refurbished 19th-century clock tower on 111th Street starts counting down to when this former hub of the Pullman Palace Car Company is remade. It will tell the story of African American migration and the 1894 strike that eventually gave birth to the national holiday of Labor Day.
Pullman is steeped in labor and civil rights history and was home to the nation's first African-American labor union. Porters and workers went on strike to protest wages and working conditions, which drew a lethal federal response at the time.
"If there ever is a moment in history and if there is ever a place to do it, it is right here on Labor Day 2020 that we know that railroad track is big enough for economic justice and rail justice," said Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who was among those observing the occasion.
In 2014, Durbin introduced legislation to designate the Pullman District as a national park. A year later, then-President Barack Obama designated the Pullman Train Car Factory as a national monument, with hopes that the fading industrial corridor would turn into a major tourist destination.
"In my 34 years with the National Park Service, I have never seen a federal construction job that has gone as smoothly as this job has gone," said Teri Gage, Superintendent of the National Monument for the National Park Service.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot also joined the celebration alongside Alderman Anthony Beale, one of her frequent critics.
"We owe it to the home and community, and to our entire country, to preserve the history and uplift this neighborhood it to its rightful place in our city's cultural and economic life," Mayor Lightfoot said.
"We have created jobs from private and public partnerships in the area. That is exactly why the crime is down over 44% in the 5th District of the 9th Ward," Ald. Beale added.
"75% of the folks who work for me are African-American; 50% of them are low income. It is extremely important that companies who are based here in the city of Chicago give back," said Cornelius Griggs, general contractor for GMA Construction Group.
The Pullman District was created in the 1880s, and it's one of the most famous company towns in the United States.
The iconic clock tower will be turned into the visitor's center as part of the $34 million renovations, making it the first national monument in Chicago. It will serve as a reminder of why the first Monday of September is a day of rest to celebrate labor.