By Carol Flynn
Land use and zoning ordinances dictate what kind of buildings and operations can go in various locations. First used in 1916 in New York City, almost every area of the country has some type of zoning requirements.
Zoning is a time-honored way communities control development. Ordinances can be used to preserve natural resources and historic sites, enhance safety and ease congestion, maintain the aesthetic appearance of a community – and prevent businesses that could negatively impact a community.
The Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA) and community leaders have always used zoning ordinances to influence development, and this month’s history feature gives one interesting example.
BAPA was formed by the community as a grassroots organization 75 years ago to maintain and promote Beverly Hills/Morgan Park as a safe, family-oriented, residential neighborhood.
The business areas became a central part of this mission. It was recognized that business development was important for a community to thrive, but in Beverly Hills/Morgan Park, it was also important that businesses fit in with the vision of the community.
In January of 1987, a man from suburban LaGrange announced plans to open the Beverly Hills Pawn Shop at 2357 W. 111th St., the corner of 111th Street and Western Avenue. The building was owned by a Skokie real estate businessman. Neither was a resident of Beverly Hills/Morgan Park.
Thirty-five years ago, pawn shops had unsavory reputations. There were no reality television shows popularizing pawn shops and turning the owners into pop culture celebrities. Pawn shops were considered by many, if not most, people to be fencing operations for stolen goods that attracted an unseemly clientele.
One resident of the community, quoted in the newspaper, said at the time, “[Pawn shops] are the sign of a declining area.”
The pawn shop had been approved by the city’s zoning and licensing boards, and the application was with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) for review. CPD oversaw stolen goods reports, and pawn shops had to submit lists of items they accepted daily for CPD review against the stolen goods lists.
As soon as word spread through the community, opposition to the pawn shop began. BAPA started a petition to stop the business that over 2,000 residents signed. 19th Ward Ald. Michael Sheahan asked the city to deny the license. Over 100 people showed up on a Sunday to picket the proposed location.
According to the newspapers, the pawn shop owner said the community’s reaction “borders on the hysterical.” The property owner declared the reaction racially motivated, stating the fear of “criminals” coming into the area meant “black criminals.”
In reality, the people distributing and signing the petition included many Black residents. There was little to no support for this pawn shop anywhere in the community.
The city did not have the authority to stop the pawn shop as all the requirements for a license were met. The pawn shop was finally stopped by a zoning change ordinance. Ald. Sheahan proposed to the city zoning committee that the site be changed from retail to a restrictive-service designation, which would prevent a pawn shop from operating there. Although the owner of the property protested, the City Council backed Sheahan and the Beverly Hills/Morgan Park community and changed the zoning status.
The Beverly Hills Pawn Shop did open at another location, in the 800 block of North Milwaukee Avenue.
About two thousand miles away, the owner of Beverly Loan, a pawn shop in Beverly Hills, Calif., was asked for his opinion on this Chicago situation.
He replied, “Why don’t they give it a try? If their community is the right kind of community, then they’re going to get the right kind of people.”
Chicago’s Beverly Hills didn’t buy into this.
Said one local resident, “People in Beverly have garage sales. They don’t go to pawn shops.”