BY KAY SEVERINSEN
On a warm summer evening, multi-colored Chicagoans line up at Beverly’s Rainbow Cone. The customers, whose ancestors came from Ireland, Africa, Poland, Latin America and many other lands, are united on one delicious obsession – a cone piled high with five flavors of ice cream.
Rainbow Cone has been around since 1926, far longer than the historic Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhoods have been ethnically integrated, but there is something especially fitting about seeing the famous ice cream shop’s rainbow sign at the edge of one of Chicago’s few, truly multi-cultural neighborhoods.
Today, the sister neighborhoods of Beverly and Morgan Park have a population mix of approximately 60 percent Caucasian, 35 percent African American and 5 percent other backgrounds.
Beverly and Morgan Park, says historian Ellen Skerrett, is “one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. This neighborhood doesn’t get the credit for achieving an integrated neighborhood. People have had a long-standing commitment to it for 40 years now or more. We see it as a positive.”
Like many of her neighbors, Skerrett and her husband are returnees, second generation families that grew up in or near Beverly and Morgan Park, and who returned to raise their own families there.
In fact, according to a BAPA survey of new residents, the number one reason that people gave for buying a home in Beverly/Morgan Park was because they wanted to be near friends and family.
“We are very proud of that,” said Matt Walsh, executive director of the Beverly Area Planning Association. “People want to come back here.”
It all started with Border’s
Many decades ago, the shopping area along 95th Street, west of Western Avenue, was known as “Quality Mile,” and was lined with popular clothing and furniture shops that catered to their moneyed neighbors. Sometime around the 1960s or 1970s, along with the rise of shopping malls and big box stores, 95th Street began to decline, and Beverly/Morgan Park residents shopped elsewhere.
But area business people and elected officials have been working hard to change that and in recent years, there has also been an influx of strong new retailers.
“Now we are seeing a resurgence,” said Lois Weber, executive director of the 95th Street Beverly Hills Business Association. “People don’t have time to go to malls; they’re just too busy. We have weathered many trends in retailing, and 95th Street has come through all of them.”
It’s been slow-going. The current turn-around began more than 12 years ago when Ald. Ginger Rugai was alerted that Borders was looking for a city location.
In 1998, after more than a year of finagling and negotiating, a team of area officials headed by Rugai was able to convince Borders Book Store to open a store on 95th Street between Leavitt and Oakley.
It was a difficult sell, since the lots along 95th street are smaller than most retailers want. Most of the lots are no more than 120 feet deep, and popular national retailers want acreage, with plenty of room for a big parking lot.
“To get Borders here, we had to acquire several parcels of land from several different owners,” says Lois Weber, executive director of the 95th Street Beverly Hills Business Association. And we were able to offer an incentive to the developers. They were our anchor.”
With the help of city conservation tax increment financing district funds, the Borders spread out east and west, and added a parking lot running linearly along 95th Street.
“That was a huge addition,” Walsh said, “and it’s now one of the top-producing Borders in the region.”
Borders’ success has encouraged other businesses to take another look at Beverly, officials say. In 2007-2008 a strip of businesses known as the “Shops of Beverly” has opened at 95th and Bell, among them a Cold Stone Creamery, a Panera Bread, a Chipotle, a GameStop and other retailers. More recently, and after many years of negotiations, the owners of the property on the corner of Western and 95th Street sold, and now the property is gearing up to house an AT&T, a Potbelly’s, a Back to Bed, a Fatburger, and more.
“We thought it would be easy (to get the next businesses in),” Weber said, “but it was still rather difficult. We were able to convince developers that we have a ready market here. We are a border community and sometimes it’s easier to do a project in the suburbs. But we have had developers come and be very impressed by our demographics.”
A recent survey of new residents in 2008 by BAPA found that 59 percent of the new residents had household incomes of $100,000 or more and 84 percent had attained at least a bachelor’s degree. Of the new buyers that year, 80 percent were Caucasian, 10 percent African American, and 10 percent mixed and other races. Among the surveyed households, 58 percent were Catholic.
And overwhelmingly, the reason they moved to Beverly was because they had friends and family there. A typical response to the question was along the lines of, “Grew up here, moved away, moved back!”
Returning residents are seeing other improvements along the main thoroughfares besides the new stores. A new Chicago library was built at 95th and Damen, while the old library, at 95th and Hamilton, is likely to be revamped into a Wishbone Restaurant, which will bring yet another high end dining place into the neighborhood.
A new, LEED-certified firehouse just opened a few blocks away as well. Along with all the business growth, the 95th Street Business Association is starting a streetscape program, and in coming years, visitors will see repaired sidewalks, improved lighting and landscaping as well as a new sign welcoming them to Beverly.
After 12 years of planning, the site of a tragic fire that took the lives of two firemen has been purchased by the Chicago Park District and will become a memorial park along Western Avenue.
Beverly’s strong sense of community may be one reason that home prices did not drop as much as some other neighborhoods in the city, Walsh says.
“Our prices never went up dramatically like many neighborhoods so when we came down we weren’t hurt as bad,” he said. “People don’t buy here to be speculative, but to live here.”
The boundaries of Beverly and Morgan Park will vary depending on who you ask, but there is some consensus that the northern boundary is 87th Street and the south 119th, with the dividing line between Beverly and Morgan Park at 107th. On the east they point to Vincennes and on the west, California. Look at a map of Chicagoland and just about where the Dan Ryan splits and grows legs, Beverly bounces on the knee bone of I-57.
Walk along any neighborhood street on a nice day, and you’ll be shaded by mature trees, soothed by the flowering, meticulously tended lawns lined with brick Georgians, bungalows and more than a few historic homes by famous architects. Until about 15 years ago, the neighborhood suffered from cut-through traffic, but after cul-de-sacs were installed in key locations, the streets quieted down, and burglaries decreased.
Depending on the street, you will find modest bungalows and brick homes built after World War Two, larger Georgians and Tudors set back from the street on wide, deep lots, three Frank Lloyd Wrights home, as well as several other landmarked homes, and a handful of newer homes. The neighborhoods have four landmark districts and historic Rock Island stations.
While most of the neighborhood offers single family housing, some streets sport townhomes or apartment buildings, either vintage and new. Closer to Longwood Drive, Vincennes and Pleasant, the terrain becomes hilly. The last Ice Age left a ridge here which is still s the highest point in Chicago.
The high terrain gives the mansions along Longwood an especially regal look. But one structure doesn’t just look regal, it’s an actual castle. The Givens House is a replica of an Irish castle built in 1886 of Joliet limestone.
We’re not in Kansas any more
More than one North Sider or East Coaster has been known to marvel over the Shangri-la-like enclave. North Siders compare it to Lake Forest or Wilmette; East Coasters say it reminds them of home. Typically, says Walsh, they will think they are in a suburb, not the city of Chicago. It’s not just the neighborhoods’ appearance, it’s the close-knot community that sets it apart from many places.
“I’ve been on this route for 31 years,” says mail carrier William Edwards. “I know everybody. I’ve watched their kids grow up.”
He is retiring next year, and, said one long-time resident, “everybody is just sick about it. We’ll miss him so much.”
But that sort of neighborliness and “everybody knows everybody” is commonplace in the leafy neighborhood.
“Many people who live here could live anywhere but they choose this,” said Skerrett. “It’s quite an extraordinary place.”
Because Beverly neighbors look out for each other, she said, parents can let their children learn independence by riding their bike to school or to Ridge Park, or by taking the train downtown.
“Those of us who grew up in the 1950s take that for granted,” she said, “but it’s not the case in the suburbs where everything is dependent on the car.” Her three daughters, now adults, learned self reliance by being able to get themselves around the neighborhood, she said.
“For me, I keep coming back to a sense of place and roots,” she said. “And here, our kids can have some of the freedoms that we enjoyed.”
The neighborhood has a very strong sense of community, and is a place where neighbors look out for one another.
During a recent thunderstorm, several thousand residents were left without power. Immediately, neighbors came to one another’s rescue.
“Extension cords were running across the street from houses that did have power to ones that didn’t,” said Rugai. “People were carrying food back and forth, checking on elderly neighbors. In Beverly, people don’t say, ‘someone should do this or that.’ They just do it.”