By Carol Flynn
In 1921, the Rock Island Magazine carried a feature story describing the communities along its Blue Island commuter line. The Beverly Hills/Morgan Park area was declared “one of the most beautiful residential sections of the city.”
Noting the “continuous hill” running south from 87th Street to the city of Blue Island and the “beautiful train stations” along the line, the article reported that “the avenues and residence lots are heavily wooded, largely with oak trees, and the well shaded streets lined with beautiful residences makes this section of the city one of the most desirable from the home standpoint.”
That was the community that the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA) was founded 75 years ago to serve.
Incorporated in Illinois as a not-for-profit organization in 1947, BAPA’s original articles of incorporation listed cooperation in the solution of neighborhood problems as its purpose. Efforts were intended to focus on maintaining restrictions for the legal uses of property, assisting in handling common civic problems, and eliminating and preventing depreciated areas.
BAPA saw itself as serving as an ombudsman to help resolve issues affecting its membership, which was comprised of both individuals, primarily homeowners, and civic and business organizations in the community.
Today, BAPA states its mission is “to sustain and enhance Beverly Hills/Morgan Park as a culturally diverse Village in the City with increasing home values, high quality schools, and thriving commercial areas.”
The difference in the mission between then and now is the recognition of the cultural diversity that defines today’s Beverly Hills and Morgan Park as a Chicago South Side neighborhood.
As BAPA’s history is explored for its diamond jubilee, what becomes most notable is that this organization, essentially founded to maintain the status quo, evolved into the major change agent that dealt with societal issues in the community in the 1970s. BAPA emerged as the organization that today embraces and builds upon the diversity that resulted from those changes.
BAPA’s roots stem from the very origins of Beverly Hills and Morgan Park. A combination of geography, location, and visionary settlers came together to create these one-of-a-kind communities.
The Blue Island, on and around which Beverly Hills and Morgan Park were settled, is a unique land mass, a ridge or moraine resulting from glacial activity many thousands of years ago. Its strategic location along the Vincennes Trace, a Native American trail that became a trade and transportation route connecting Chicago with points to the south, east and west, attracted early settlers.
The scenic beauty of the Blue Island Ridge became almost legendary. It was a favorite spot for picnics and hikes, and for artists to visit for inspiration.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners purchased the northern tip of the Ridge for the new Forest Preserves of Cook County, and stated in a 1918 report that the location “had long been recognized as a historical attraction because of the towering bluff.” The report stated, “In Beverly Hills, the southern end of Cook County has a real beauty spot…. it boasts more spectacular points of interest than any other stretch of forest land in the county.”
The Ridge area was not developed haphazardly or in haste. Large parcels of land were held for years by the estates of wealthy men like Thomas Morgan and John Sherman before being sold for development.
Beverly Hills became a suburban “bedroom community” for educated, wealthy men and their families. One, Robert “Bob” Givins, even built a castle here.
Parcels of land were developed into the large, beautifully designed lots by men like Eugene Pike, a real estate developer with a love for horticulture. Today, BAPA honors Pike by working to save his “gardener’s cottage” at 91st Street and Longwood Drive from the wrecking ball.
Morgan Park was developed in the 1870s as a planned community with education, religious, and temperance goals. The streets were laid out as an English village; plans for charming houses were offered; and prestigious schools like Mount Vernon Military Academy, now Morgan Park Academy, were started. Men like William Rainey Harper thrived here. Morgan Park was even considered as the possible location for the University of Chicago.
Early residents of Beverly Hills and Morgan Park included friends of Abraham Lincoln, such as Austin Wiswall and Charles Ten Broeke. The Hofer sisters and other educated, progressive women were colleagues of Jane Addams of Hull House. The founders of Rotary International, Paul Harris, and the nation’s oldest rescue, the Pacific Garden Mission, Col. George and Sarah Clarke, called the Ridge home. Trail-blazing educators Alice Barnard and Bessie Sutherland now have schools in their home community named for them.
John Vanderpoel, artist and educator with the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), and William French, AIC’s first executive director, lived here and attracted other artists to the area. Architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, George Maher, Walter Burley Griffin, H. H. Waterman, and three generations of the Hetherington family, designed significant homes, churches, and other buildings on the Ridge.
It was no wonder the residents wanted to preserve these communities. That BAPA was started is not surprising.
As part of the Progressive Era of the late 1800s when reforms were taking place in just about every aspect of society, civic organizations for “improvement” emerged throughout the country. These volunteer organizations focused on enhancing local residential areas through efforts like beautification campaigns.
As communities consolidated into growing urban areas, local village councils disappeared. Beverly became part of Chicago in 1890, and Morgan Park annexed in 1914. The need to deal as a group with issues from city administration arose, and local neighborhood organizations took on that role.
When BAPA started, there were already many improvement and business organizations in the Ridge community. The Ridge Civic Council (RCC) formed around 1910 and grew into a coalition of over 40 organizations. Included were the Ridge Improvement Association, the Washington Heights Improvement Association, the Morgan Park Improvement Association, the Beverly Hills Improvement Association, the 95th Street Business Men’s Association, and dozens more.
Many of the issues that BAPA deals with today are not new. As just one example, in the 1920s, the newspapers reported that a major issue for the Ridge Civic Council was the preservation and care of the trees in the Ridge district. This year, 100 years later, BAPA planted 500 new trees in the community.
While there were other groups already in existence, BAPA appears to be the first to include the term “planning” in its name. The concept of urban planning became mainstream in the 1920s, with Harvard University offering the first academic program in the new discipline.
The philosophy of a planning association at that time was perhaps best explained by an official of the Southtown Planning Association, an Englewood-based group that pre-dated BAPA: “Planning is a continuous process. We must deal with today’s problems in the light of the past and project our thoughts as far into the future as possible. Planning must be flexible so as to lend itself to changes and developments and new elements as they arise.”
In 1941, the results of a land-use survey conducted in Chicago neighborhoods was reported in the Southtown Economist newspaper. In Beverly, there were almost 4,000 residences, and over 96% of them were single-family, compared to 43% city-wide. Over 99% of the homes in Beverly had installed heating systems, gas or electric lighting, and a private inside toilet and bath, compared to 80% for the city.
The population of Beverly was reported in 1934 as 14,429, which included 53 African Americans.
The corresponding report for Morgan Park revealed that 86% of the 4,000 residences were single-family homes, and 89% had installed heating, lighting, and private bathrooms. The population of 13,949 was 37% African American.
That was the community snapshot when the first mention of BAPA was noted in the newspapers in January, 1948. William C. Groebe, BAPA’s “field secretary,” was scheduled to speak on “Community Planning” at an upcoming meeting. Later that year, Groebe spoke at a Beverly town meeting on the Supreme Court’s decision making racial restrictive covenants unenforceable. He was joined by the lawyer who consulted for the NAACP for the Supreme Court case.
Groebe was often the BAPA spokesperson in the early years and he stayed involved with BAPA for decades. He was born in Chicago in 1894, and opened a real estate business on 111th Street and Western Avenue in 1925, which he moved to 95th Street in 1938. He lived in Morgan Park and was active in numerous real estate and civic organizations, including the Ridge Civic Council.
In the beginning years, zoning changes and city plans that would impact the neighborhood’s character as an upscale, family-oriented residential community of single-family homes were always on BAPA’s radar. The newspapers reported that BAPA opposed zoning changes that would have allowed medical and dental practices in residential areas, more parking lots for buildings like churches, and additional apartment buildings.
BAPA could not stop all new construction that the community considered undesirable, but it did exert influence over the types of buildings approved by the city.
In 1955, BAPA, representing 15 “property owner groups,” joined with more than 20 other associations to protest the city’s plan to build 500 row houses as public housing on vacant land at 115th Street and Vincennes Avenue, and thousands of additional units in South Side communities.
In 1964 , BAPA opposed the building of a 58-unit apartment builing on 103rd Street west of Wood Street, and in 1965, it opposed building a 30 to 35 unit apartment building on 103rd Street between Wood and Prospect Streets.
In 1960, to protect home owners from shoddy workmanship, BAPA supported a city plan to license all building contractors doing business in the city. Plumbers, brick layers, and electic contractors already were licensed.
Groebe was BAPA president in 1960 when the organization strongly fought the closing of the Morgan Park police station in a consolidation move by the city. BAPA and the community lost. The station was closed the following year, but reestablished in 1975.
BAPA opposed the widening of 103rd Street between Western and Kedzie Avenues in 1967 because it would cut into residential areas, and the city dropped the plan. Later, however, the street was widened.
Successful efforts BAPA supported in its earliest years included the establishment of a Chicago Public Library branch in Beverly, building the rapid transit “el” line on the Dan Ryan Expressway with a stop at 95th Street, and adding off-street parking at the Rock Island train stations.
It is evident that the Beverly Hills/Morgan Park community might look considerably different today without BAPA’s activism during the last 75 years. In the next issue of The Villager, BAPA’s role as a change agent in the 1970s will be explored.