Robin Amer: Hi, everyone, Robin here. Before we start this week’s episode, I wanted to share some sad news with you.
Henry Henderson died last week.
If you’ve been following along with the show, you know that Henderson was the lawyer turned Chicago environment commissioner who was one of the few city officials to do anything about the North Lawndale Mountain. He spent years battling John Christopher’s illegal dumps, however imperfectly.
Henderson had lung cancer and he had recently entered hospice care. He was just 66 years old.
After Henderson left city government, he went to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC—a kind of legal aid fund for the environment. As the group’s longtime Midwest director, he spearheaded a host of initiatives. They were all aimed at keeping our air, land, and water clean—and at protecting vulnerable communities from the hazards of pollution and industry.
Under Henderson, the NRDC sued the city of Flint and the state of Michigan, forcing them to replace the service lines that had caused so many Flint residents to develop lead poisoning. The group took on BP, forcing the oil giant to install air pollution controls at its massive refinery in Whiting, Indiana. And the NRDC went after a subsidiary of the Koch Brothers, after the company trucked black mountains of petroleum coke into a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Richard M. Daley, the former Chicago mayor and Henderson’s former boss, said of Henry: “He has long been instrumental in the environmental movement here, long before cities cared to acknowledge the need for such initiatives.”
For us here at The City, Henry Henderson also was instrumental in helping us get to the bottom of this particular environmental story.
So perhaps there is no place better to begin this week’s episode. It’s called “The Cleanup.”
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Robin Amer: In January 1996, just a few days after Operation Silver Shovel became public, one of Chicago’s US Congressmen called a press conference at the site of the North Lawndale dumps. Dick Durbin was the highest-ranking politician to publicly acknowledge the dumps. Now he was there to demand a cleanup.
Dick Durbin: I’ll go ahead and say a few words. [Trucks beeping the background]
Robin Amer: Heavy snow is falling. Durbin wears a black wool overcoat with the lapels turned up—protection from the wind. Behind him, the Mountain looms. Covered in a thick dusting of white, it looks almost pastoral. But red dump trucks and yellow bulldozers crawl over the site—you can hear them beeping in the background.
Durbin turns to face the cameras.
Dick Durbin: This Operation Silver Shovel has called our attention to what is a blight on the city of Chicago and our state. These illegal dumps in a residential neighborhood are absolutely shameful.
Robin Amer: To North Lawndale residents, though, what was shameful was how long it had taken Dick Durbin and other high-level elected officials to pay close attention to the dumps. Durbin had shown up nearly six years after residents had first appealed to public officials for help.
Dick Durbin: I'm calling on the US Environmental Protection Agency to come forward to determine first whether there's any evidence of hazardous waste at any of these Operation Silver Shovel sites. The EPA has the authority to respond immediately if there is evidence. I might tell you that Mr. Christopher...
Robin Amer: Of course, the EPA had already been to North Lawndale. Two years earlier, the Illinois and US EPAs had removed roughly 150 truckloads of hazardous waste, including barrels of mystery chemicals. But they had left the six stories of debris behind.
The federal agencies behind Operation Silver Shovel had no intention of cleaning up the dumps either—they didn’t see it as their responsibility. But ultimately, the investigation was a catalyst for change.
For nearly six years, it was as if no one outside North Lawndale could even see this six-story mountain in the middle of the city.
But suddenly, almost magically, Operation Silver Shovel—and the association of these dumps with an undercover corruption probe—made the Mountain visible to everyone. Political figures who hadn’t so much has mentioned it in the past were now shaming others for ignoring it.
Silver Shovel set off a flurry of activity that residents welcomed but it came with the bitterness of knowing that it could have happened six years sooner.
The beeping trucks and bulldozers behind Dick Durbin were there to clean up the dump—to dismantle the Mountain piece by piece. The bulldozers scoop up bucket-full after bucket-full of concrete slabs, asphalt chunks, and dirt, and drop them into the backs of the dump trucks. And each full truck then drives out of the lot and takes its cargo away.
But even this cleanup repeated many of the same wrongs that put the Mountain there in the first place. Black neighborhoods would get dumped on. White neighborhoods would benefit. Companies would profit. And the people responsible would suffer few serious consequences.
It all happened again—only this time, in reverse.
I’m Robin Amer. From USA TODAY, this is The City.
Robin Amer: All through the winter of 1996, the cleanup continued. Removing the debris was as big an undertaking as building the Mountain had been.
Block club president Gladys Woodson had watched in those early days as John Christopher set up shop and allowed trucks to dump a block from her home. Now she watched the process slowly rewind.
Gladys Woodson: It felt sorta good, 'cause I'm saying, “Wow, now we, now it's gone. It's going to be gone.”
Robin Amer: Can you tell us what that was like?
Gladys Woodson: [Sighs] Dusty. More dust with the trucks coming in to get the stuff. But at least they sprayed the street down, which KrisJohn never did. Never did.
Robin Amer: North Lawndale residents had conflicting feelings about the cleanup and all this new attention being paid to their neighborhood. On one hand, they were glad to see the dumps go. On the other hand, they resented the public figures who had not seemed to care about their neighborhood before the corruption probe.
Here’s Rita Ashford, who had protested the dumps, and her daughters, Sherina and Michelle.
Rita Ashford: You know how long we were out there fighting that dump? Yeah. Silver Shovel broke and it was all like a puff of smoke. And everything changed.
Sherina Ashford: It just was there one day, gone the next.
Michelle Ashford: 'Cause they was rolling all night long. They would be rolling all night long, getting it out of there, once it broke. And when you looked up, the pile went from well, you know, the kids used to run up and then stand on the top. They went from being up there to just, oh, it's gone. If it hadn’t been for Silver Shovel, we still would have been dealing with that dump probably right now today.
Rita Ashford: Yes, if it hadn’t been for Silver Shovel, we still would have been fighting that dump.
Robin Amer: Others asked the obvious question: Where was all this attention and scrutiny when the problem was simply illegal dumping in a black neighborhood? Here’s Ms. Woodson again.
Gladys Woodson: We done lived through five years of this stuff, you know? There's people that done had asthma attack, the people that on oxygen machines, and we have a few people to move out of the neighborhood. Just moved. Because they could no longer stand the dust and stuff.
Robin Amer: In late February 1996, about five weeks into the clean-up, the environment-focused public radio show Living on Earth sent reporter Shirley Jahad to check on the clean-up.
She visited North Lawndale and talked to people who lived in the two apartment buildings that stood on the very same lot as the dump. One of the people she interviewed was Keith Wardlow, a father of two who worked as a custodian at a local university.
Shirley Jahad: The view from Keith Wardlow's back porch isn't pretty, but it is awesome. It is simply called the Mountain: 700,000 tons of debris.
Keith Wardlow: Now that's the Mountain. Now you're seeing the Mountain. You see how tall that is? You see how tall that is? How far it is? Now that's the Mountain.
Robin Amer: Keith Wardlow expressed many of the same sentiments as his neighbors: the feds should have cleaned up this dump years ago, rather than letting it continue to grow while using John Christopher as a mole to catch politicians taking bribes.
Keith Wardlow: One crook trying to prosecute another crook. [Laughs] To me, you know, if you're so concerned about what they had, why you ain't in the neighborhood trying to see who got infected from the dirt? You know? That's what you should have been doing first, you know, instead of trying to find out who took some money.
Robin Amer: The Wardlow family had suffered for years living next to the dump. Now, the damage to their home, and, they believed, their health, continued during the cleanup.
Shirley Jahad: Keith Wardlow's house shakes every time trucks roll in and out of the dump site. He always keeps his windows closed and covered with plastic in a vain effort to prevent dust blowing off the heap from settling in his apartment. He says his four-year-old son Keno has contracted severe asthma. The boy's mother, Debra Wardlow, says the child has to breathe through a machine, a nebulizer.
Debra Wardlow: He's on it twice a day and sometimes the machine doesn't work so I have to rush him to the emergency room.
Robin Amer: The company doing the cleanup was Lindahl Brothers, a well-connected firm that had been owned by the same family for three generations. It had dug the trenches for the Hancock Building and other downtown skyscrapers and had built the International Terminal at O’Hare Airport.
And Lindahl Brothers was there to do the clean up because they were also one of the companies that had dumped there in the first place.
Lindahl Brothers and eight other companies had allegedly saved millions of dollars by dumping in John Christopher’s lots rather than taking debris from their job sites to a legal, permitted landfill.
The city had dropped these companies from its lawsuit against John Christopher, hoping they would settle and participate in a cleanup. That had not worked. The companies denied dumping. So, in 1995, the city sued them again.
Lindahl Brothers agreed to settle with the city, but a judge only approved a settlement after “the takedown”—after the pressure and media scrutiny sparked by Silver Shovel.
Under the terms of the settlement, Lindahl Brothers did not admit to breaking the law. But the company agreed to remove the equivalent of more than 9,000 trucks full of debris.
The city later said that it settled with nine companies, including Lindahl, for a total of $900,000—but that was a fraction of the overall cleanup costs.
Reporter Shirley Jahad was able to talk to a construction foreman from Lindahl Brothers—a man named Rick Bore. Because Lindahl Brothers wouldn’t talk to us for this story, it’s the only tape we have of someone from the company talking about the cleanup.
Rick Bore: It's been here so damn long and it's so high that it's a problem.
Shirley Jahad: How many trucks do you have coming in and out a day? Truckloads off that mountain?
Rick Bore: About 120.
Shirley Jahad: How long will you be at it?
Rick Bore: Oh, three, four months. It’ll be a while.
Robin Amer: Lindahl Brothers agreed to pay for its share of the cleanup. They even agreed to pay the city $10 for every truck load dumped at designated disposal sites.
But the terms of the settlement also gave Lindahl Brothers permission to use any debris it removed for its own purposes—including re-selling it to other companies to use in their road repair projects. Which meant that technically, the company could make money off the cleanup.
And there would be no long-term consequences for the company’s very lucrative relationship with the city.
Lindahl Brothers was not barred from doing business with the city. Quite the opposite: Since the cleanup began more than 20 years ago, Lindahl Brothers and its joint ventures have scored hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts.
But more importantly for North Lawndale, this portion of the cleanup was only one part of the solution, as reporter Shirley Jahad noted.
Shirley Jahad: Even after Lindahl Brothers cleans up its share of the mess, though, 600,000 tons of trash will remain.
Robin Amer: And at this point, in the winter of 1996, the city had not figured out who would clean up the rest.
Keith Wardlow: They should'a never put this stuff there.
Shirley Jahad: Yeah.
Keith Wardlow: People get sick. That's probably got all kinds of, it's a health hazard in the first place. Rats. Cats and dogs, you know. It's just a health hazard. You can look at it and tell.
Robin Amer: When John Christopher first started dumping in North Lawndale, Gladys Woodson and her fellow block club captains had written letters to every public official they could think of who might be able to help them. City agencies. Mayor Daley. At least one member of Congress.
Gladys Woodson: We wrote to everyone from who’s who to who’s that.
Ms. Woodson says they also wrote to civil rights groups like the NAACP. And to Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Civil Rights activist whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is based in Chicago.
Gladys Woodson: We told him what was happening with our neighborhood, and we asked him, could he come and help us?
Robin Amer: Ms. Woodson says they never heard back from Jesse Jackson. At least not until the camera crews arrived.
Gladys Woodson: The Silver Shovel story broke and then, the next thing I saw was Jesse Jackson standing on top on the pile saying, “Oh, yeah, we did this.” And we was saying, no, you didn’t. He stood there, and he took credit for a lot of the stuff that had been done. But that was way after the fight.
Robin Amer: Jesse Jackson, the iconic Civil Rights activist and Baptist minister, had first come to Chicago in the early 1960s, to attend seminary. He would later march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and push for an end to Apartheid in South Africa. But over the decades, his critics have also accused him of jumping from media storm to media storm—of seeking the limelight as much as he sought justice.
To understand how Jesse Jackson helped ensure the cleanup of the North Lawndale dumps—but also alienated some North Lawndale residents—we have to go back to his work on a program called Operation Breadbasket.
The program organized boycotts against white-owned businesses—like soda pop bottling companies and grocery store chains—that made big profits in black neighborhoods but didn’t employ black workers. On the heels of his success in those campaigns, Jackson started hearing from small, black-owned trucking companies. Here’s Rev. Jackson.
Jesse Jackson: And so, for example, we found guys who maybe had two or three trucks, and they were just kind of hustling as best they could.
Robin Amer: These truckers complained that they were not getting as many waste-hauling contracts as their white counterparts. They weren’t getting them from white-owned businesses, like grocery store chains, that needed commercial trash pick-up. And that meant that they were missing out on a lot of money.
Jesse Jackson: If you get, say, a three-year contract with a chain store, you pick up six cans a day. You can take that letter of intent. Your letter of credit. You can get new trucks, and you're in real business.
Robin Amer: They were not getting as many contracts from the city either. Local news reports from the time said that black-owned firms got just 14 percent of city contracts, even though black people then made up about 37 percent of Chicago’s population. And city contracts were where some of the real money was.
A city contract for hauling waste, or sludge, as Jackson jokingly calls it, could be worth millions of dollars.
Jesse Jackson: And we didn't realize that “sludge is fudge” if you're on the trucks.
Robin Amer: I’m sorry, you said “sludge is fudge if you're on the trucks”?
Jesse Jackson: If you're on the trucks. [Laughs]
Robin Amer: What does that mean?
Jesse Jackson: I mean that it is considered dirty work. If you're on the trucks, it is a very lucrative business.
Robin Amer: The way Rev. Jackson tells it, when he learned about Operation Silver Shovel and the mountain of debris in a black, West Side neighborhood, he realized that the cleanup presented a unique opportunity—a possible silver lining to a really bad situation.
John Christopher had dumped in a black neighborhood and had helped take down black politicians. And, if you recall, he’d done it in part by scheming to get contracts intended for black-owned businesses—it was one of the scams he had used to bribe the aldermen.
Jackson did not fight for compensation for people North Lawndale whose homes had been damaged or whose children had been harmed. But someone was going to get paid to clean up that site. And Rev. Jackson believed that if anyone was going to make money off the site now, it should be black-owned businesses.
Jesse Jackson: We should have the right to remove the debris in our own community, because it is obviously going be a good, lucrative job for someone to have the job.
Robin Amer: Better them, he reasoned, than white-owned firms like Lindahl Brothers—firms that had been responsible for dumping in the first place.
Jesse Jackson: For those who put it there should make money from locating in a community then make money from removing it? We should at least have the right to get paid for moving it.
Robin Amer: So, in January 1996, as Lindahl Brothers was removing its portion of debris from the site, Rev. Jackson came forward with a proposal. He wanted the city to hire black-owned trucking firms to clean up the rest of the dumps.
But according to Jackson, Mayor Richard M. Daley was hesitant to sign on to this plan.
Jesse Jackson: At first, I think there was a resistance, because the insiders who used to get these kinds of jobs were demanding their right to get them. And we demanded the right to circumvent that system.
Robin Amer: We reached out to former Mayor Daley for comment, but he didn’t respond.
So, Jackson turned to the same kinds of protest tactics that had worked for him time and time again—an impressive display of solidarity and power that North Lawndale residents could have used years before.
Jesse Jackson: We organized the trucks and the land removers.
Robin Amer: On a frigid Saturday in early February 1996, dozens of diesel trucks and bulldozers lined up along Drexel Boulevard, around the corner from Jesse Jackson’s South Side office. Black truckers had plastered their rigs with signs that read, “We want our fair share,” and “Hire us to clean up the dump.”
Then, in a slow, deliberate processional, the convoy headed for North Lawndale.
Jesse Jackson: And we did a four-mile trip across the city, driving at about 10 miles an hour, with trucks and tractors and trailers and dumpsters. And we lined up and moved across the city. Stopped traffic for two or three hours.
Robin Amer: This mobile protest of black truckers was meant to draw attention, and to prove they were capable of the cleanup.
Jesse Jackson: There was no reason to say we couldn't remove it, because we had dumpsters and trailers and trucks and drivers and everything that was required.
Robin Amer: Jackson led the caravan. As they drove, they were followed by a police escort. Onlookers raised their fists in a gesture of solidarity.
When the trucks arrived in North Lawndale, they encircled the dump and blasted their horns.
They were not given a warm welcome. Lindahl Brothers was still in the process of removing its portion of the debris, and, knowing the caravan was headed its way, the company had blocked the entrance to the site with a three-foot mound of dirt and a pair of bulldozers. According to the Chicago Defender, two police cars also blocked the entrance.
Jackson accused police of siding with Lindahl and told reporters, “This is not Lindahl’s dump.”
According to the Defender, Jackson then told two black truckers to squeeze through the two police cars and mow down the blockade.
But before that could happen, the police negotiated a kind of truce, and the convoy was able to enter the lot and rally. It was then that Jackson hopped up on a tractor to address the crowd.
Jackson threatened to continue the protests into the summer—when the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to come to Chicago. The Tribune characterized his threats this way: “Give us what we want, or watch as we wreak havoc on your big, important party this summer.”
It was only then that Daley agreed to hire black-owned truckers to clean up the dumps.
Jesse Jackson: That was our non-violent protest. And it worked.
Robin Amer: On a blustery Tuesday afternoon in May 1996, almost six years to the day from when John Christopher showed up and started dumping, Mayor Daley held his first press conference in front of the dumps.
He was there to announce a deal struck between the city and Jesse Jackson’s group of black-owned trucking firms. The city had agreed to pay them to remove another nine thousand or so trucks worth of debris from the North Lawndale dumps.
Daley stood behind a lectern emblazoned with the city seal. He wore a checkered tie and looked solemn as the wind whipped up dust from the dumps and blew through his hair. Jackson stood to the mayor’s right with his hands clasped in front of him.
In his remarks that day, Mayor Daley depicted the deal as a triumph for the city and the neighborhood, saying:
“It is an agreement that benefits everyone, especially the North Lawndale community that has lived with this monstrosity for years. It is a major victory. I thank them for their persistence and their help. ...We will work tirelessly to pursue every dumper who contributed to this mess until the site has been totally cleared and can be an asset to the North Lawndale community instead of a liability.”
But these were hollow words coming from a mayor who had basically ignored the North Lawndale dumps for almost six years. Yes, North Lawndale residents had been persistent, but their persistence seemed to fall on his deaf ears.
Daley had personally stepped in to shut down a dump in a white neighborhood, without speaking out against this one, in a black neighborhood. He had shown no interest in the unfolding corruption scandal when first briefed by the feds.
It was this discrepancy that made Ms. Woodson and other North Lawndale residents cynical about the city’s ultimate response and the role of political figures like Mayor Daley and Rev. Jackson.
Gladys Woodson: I believe a lot of them whooped in and took credit once they named this Silver Shovel. A lot of people whooped in and claim victory over Silver Shovel when we had been, ever since KrisJohn was a dump site.
Robin Amer: By the following spring, black-owned firms had sent in trucks to begin this second phase of the cleanup.
Our reporter, Wilson Sayre, got ahold of some of the trucking manifests and other documents related to this part of the cleanup.
So, Wilson, give us a sense of how the cleanup unfolded.
Wilson Sayre: So, there were a bunch of trucking companies involved, and most companies had several trucks. So, like, so here’s a manifest from Tuesday, May 27, 1997.
Honey B trucking company had truck #39, and that removed five loads of debris the day. Then there was a Hard Rock trucking company, and their truck #30 removed six loads of debris that day. Then there was A&W trucking company, and one of their trucks removed five loads that day. So, the total number of loads removed that day was 67 loads.
And that continued day after day for months.
Robin Amer: And how much did the cleanup eventually cost the city?
Wilson Sayre: Even though Mayor Daley said publicly that settlement money from the illegal dumpers would pay for the cleanup, that’s not exactly what happened. The cost was much higher than the $900,000 in settlement money they’d gotten from the companies.
In 2001, the city’s top lawyer sent the federal government a bill for the cleanup—a bill for nearly $7.4 million.
The letter was addressed to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. It mentions two sites that John Christopher had dumped on during his time as an informant—one in North Lawndale and another one on the South Side.
It states that, “The property damage at these two sites was caused by ‘Operation Silver Shovel’ … and the use of John Christopher as a government informant.”
The city accuses the FBI and DOJ of allowing the illegal dumping to continue during the investigation because it furthered the purposes of Operation Silver Shovel.
Robin Amer: And did the feds ever pay the city back?
Wilson Sayre: No. At least, we couldn’t find any evidence that they did.
Robin Amer: It took almost two full years after Silver Shovel broke for the cleanup to be completed. That was eight years after John Christopher first showed up in North Lawndale.
But by 1998, John Christopher’s dumps were gone.
Deyki Nichols was in high school when the cleanup started. You’ve heard from him before—he used to attend Sumner Elementary School and played on the mountain of debris.
Deyki doesn’t recall the particulars of the cleanup, but he remembers the transformation it sparked. It was hard to miss. Where there had once been a six-story Mountain, there was now an empty lot.
Deyki Nichols: Like, man, our hills’ gone. So I, like again I’m going back to me being a kid, saying, “They took our hills away.” But like I said, me growing into the man I am now, really appreciate where it’s at now. It looks, it’s gorgeous far as what it used to look like.
Robin Amer: But once all that debris was removed, where did it go?
That’s after the break.
Robin Amer: Earlier this spring, I went to visit Altgeld Gardens, a sprawling public housing complex on Chicago’s far South Side. Altgeld Gardens is a hundred and thirty blocks south of the Loop—as far south as you can go and still be in Chicago.
The area feels isolated now, but its two-story row homes were originally built in 1944 to house black workers from the city’s nearby steel mills. There were once dozens of mills here that employed hundreds of thousands of workers.
The steel mills have long since closed, but the area still wrestles with the legacy of their departure: the vacant land, waste facilities and dirty industry that has come to take their place. And Altgeld Gardens is still home to nearly seven thousand residents, almost all of whom are black and low-income.
I came to Altgeld Gardens because it was the home of Hazel Johnson. Johnson, who died in 2011, is often called the mother of the environmental justice movement in Chicago. She was one of those activists who fought alongside Dr. Robert Bullard, the Houston sociologist we met in our last episode.
Here’s Hazel Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl.
Cheryl Johnson: My mother loved him. It wasn't just an admiration. She loved that man like he was her child.
Robin Amer: Cheryl Johnson still lives in Altgeld Gardens and now runs People for Community Recovery, the environmental action group her mother founded.
Like Dr. Bullard, Hazel Johnson spent her whole adult life trying to protect black and brown neighborhoods from being disproportionately affected by pollution—starting with Altgeld Gardens, which she dubbed “the toxic doughnut.”
Cheryl Johnson: She coined our neighborhood “the toxic doughnut,” you know, and she was trying to clean that doughnut up. That was her mission. That’s—and she said the people have a right to be educated, or at least knowledgeable, about urban environmental problems.
Robin Amer: Hazel Johnson called Altgeld Gardens the “toxic doughnut” because it was completely surrounded by so many different sources of dangerous pollution.
Robin Amer: Can you just describe, like if we went around the clock from 12 to 1 to 2 to 3 all around the neighborhood, around the doughnut, can you describe what surrounds your neighborhood?
Cheryl Johnson: Twelve o'clock used to be Sherwin Williams Paint Company and the Water Reclamation District. Then if you go to like between one and three, you're going to land up in the Lake Calumet Industrial Area, where, you know, you have Ford Motor Company, Paxton Lagoons, Paxton Landfill.
Robin Amer: And a hazardous waste incinerator that burned PCBs—a known carcinogen.
Cheryl Johnson: Then, when you get to, from three to six, lot of manufacturing. And lot of open space. Contaminated, but open. And landfills. This area used to carry 50 landfills.
Robin Amer: Fifty landfills. Just think about everything you know about landfills from our trip to Houston. The rotting trash. The stench and the impact on property values. Now factor in the impact of hazardous waste. Barrels of flammable chemicals. Or toxic waste known to make people sick. Now multiply those effects by 50. Fifty landfills, including a hazardous waste landfill that received dirt from John Christopher’s illegal dumps.
Thousands of tons of dirt were removed from John Christopher’s dumps. Some of it had been contaminated. And the city Department of Environment took charge of moving all that dirt to a hazardous waste landfill just a few blocks from Altgeld Gardens. In the process, this contaminated dirt was effectively moved from one black community to another. One that has been fighting environmental battles for decades.
The landfill near Altgeld Gardens was one of the few hazardous waste disposal sites in Chicago at the time. The city didn’t have many other options.
But it’s not an accident that this facility and others like it were all clustered in this formerly industrial area that’s also home to Altgeld Gardens. This is something we talked about with Dr. Bullard during our trip to Houston.
Robert Bullard: If you look at what happens in the real world, you generally don't find one facility, you usually have a clustering effect. You have two, you have three. And the way it works in the real world, if you have three facilities and a company wants to put the fourth facility there, it's easier to get the fourth facility.
Robin Amer: In 2007, Dr. Bullard was part of a study that looked at the demographics of people living within a two-mile radius of the nation’s hazardous waste sites. The results of that study revealed that 55 percent of people living near these sites were people of color, whereas people of color only made up about 25 percent of the country’s population.
Robert Bullard: So that shows you that people of color are more likely to face risks associated with hazardous waste facilities than white people.
Robin Amer: The environmental justice movement came up with a term for areas like Altgeld Gardens and other neighborhoods where dangerous pollution is clustered: sacrifice zones.
Robert Bullard: A sacrifice zone is nothing more than communities or a particular area that has basically been designated as compatible for saturation of industrial pollution and industries. And again, it’s almost like saying, for the good of all, this particular area we’ll have to sacrifice. We’ll have to sacrifice the land, the environment, and the people.
Robin Amer: I told Dr. Bullard about the efforts to remove the six stories of debris from North Lawndale and about how some of the dirt was contaminated.
Robin Amer: Do you want to guess where they took the contaminated dirt?
Robert Bullard: Not the South Side? Not the South Side. Shameful.
Robin Amer: Next door to Altgeld Gardens.
Robert Bullard: That's right, I've been there. That's where they took it. Again, environmental injustice—when you get justice one place, you still don't get justice. Because there's a limited number of places that people consider where you can put this stuff. And that's not justice. That's partial victory and partial justice.
Robin Amer: Cheryl Johnson did not know that the contaminated dirt from the North Lawndale dumps had ended up in the landfill in the toxic doughnut until I told her. But she didn’t seem shocked by it.
Although Cheryl has taken on her mother’s mantle and has now been fighting for years to protect and advocate for her neighborhood, she also seemed almost resigned to the fact that in Chicago, her neighborhood had already been designated as the destination for this kind of waste.
Cheryl Johnson: We carry the most, 50 documented landfills, than any other areas in the city of Chicago anyway. Would you want it to go somewhere else?
Robin Amer: At least, she said, the illegal dumps in North Lawndale had been dismantled, and the waste had not been sent to another illegal dump.
Cheryl Johnson: I'm just saying that if that's the sacrifice that we have to make, at least we know it's going to a place where it's being monitored and regulated.
Robin Amer: For the waste from the North Lawndale dumps that was not hazardous, there were other options—ones in which no neighborhood had to be sacrificed. And the city took this other approach in a white neighborhood with ties to Chicago’s most powerful family.
Although the contaminated dirt from John Christopher’s dumps was taken to the hazardous waste landfill near Altgeld Gardens, the bulk of the material—nearly all the concrete slabs and chunks of asphalt—ended up in Palmisano Park.
Palmisano Park is a 27-acre green space in Bridgeport, a neighborhood about three-and-a-half miles southwest of the Loop. When the weather's nice, it’s a great place to walk your dog, or have a picnic, or take a date. I’ve been on dates here. There’s a fishing pond and a terraced walkway and natural landscaping with native wildflowers.
The tip-off that this place was not always a beautiful public park comes from the massive, grassy, three-story hill in the center of the park. It’s like Dr. Bullard said in Houston: Chicago is completely flat, so if you see a mountain, be suspicious. Landfill!
Palmisano Park used to be a limestone mine called Stearn’s Quarry. It opened in the 1830s, around the same time Chicago became a city. At first, it was at the edge of town. But as the new city expanded and the population boomed, the densely populated neighborhood of Bridgeport grew up around the quarry.
We found this incredible black and white aerial photo of the quarry. It shows densely packed rows of three-story apartment buildings and bungalows and workman’s cottages built right up against the edge of a massive pit—380 feet deep. That’s so deep that you could fit the Statue of Liberty inside it.
The quarry closed in 1969, but the pit remained. You could drive through Bridgeport down Halsted Street and peer into the abyss. And by the mid-’90s, when city officials were casting around for a place to take the debris from the dumps in North Lawndale, they had another problem on their hands. We heard about it from environment commissioner Henry Henderson.
Henry Henderson: The old quarry, Stearns Quarry, it was falling in. And there was a good possibility if the quarry was not filled, that part of Halsted would go directly into the bottom of the, 200 feet into the bottom of the of the quarry.
Robin Amer: Filling Stearn’s Quarry with debris from John Christopher’s dumps solved two problems at once.
Henry Henderson: Hauling it to Stearn’s Quarry was a way of dealing with the Stearn’s Quarry problem and remove a lot of the stuff from the facility.
Robin Amer: The project may have also had special meaning for Mayor Daley because Bridgeport was his neighborhood. He grew up in a red-brick bungalow just a half-mile or so from the quarry. Although Bridgeport today is home to a large number of Chinese and Mexican families, the neighborhood had long been mostly white and Irish Catholic—and the seat of the Daley family’s political power.
In other words, the waste shipped to Bridgeport, a white neighborhood with ties to the Daleys, was transformed into a beautiful park. The waste shipped to Altgeld Gardens, a poor black neighborhood without access to the halls of power, was not.
The transformation from limestone quarry to public park was actually alluded to in Boss—a short-lived TV show that was basically a thinly-veiled dramatization of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s time in office.
Kelsey Grammer starred as Mayor Tom Kane. Midway through Season 1, Mayor Kane becomes embroiled in a political scandal that seems loosely based on the story of the North Lawndale dumps. Mayor Kane had given the greenlight to an illegal dump that then poisoned the water supply of a nearby suburb. And now the town’s residents are threatening to sue the city.
As the media pounces on the story, Mayor Kane ducks their questions. He goes back to his old neighborhood, to find solace in his favorite local watering hole. He’s known the bar’s owner since he was a political neophyte.
The two of them take a walk around Palmisano Park, where a trio of boys are standing by the water.
Mayor Kane: Those people are fishing down there.
Bar owner: Yeah, in the mornings, they come to watch for birds. From a chemical dump to a fuckin’ Garden of Eden.
Mayor Kane: It was a quarry before that. Someday someone will come along and convince the city to build condos next to the fishing pond and turn it into something else.
Robin Amer: In real life, after the debris was removed from North Lawndale, the lot that had been home to the Mountain became an empty 21-acre lot—one of the biggest undeveloped parcels on Chicago’s West Side. So, in 1998, the city moved to buy the land and redevelop it.
And in order to redevelop that land, the city began to try and convince the residents of North Lawndale to let them turn it into something else—as Mayor Kane put it.
And that meant forcing out some residents who had lived through the worst of the dumping.
Keith Wardlow: Well they claimed there was gonna be a big movie theater, I think. Ain’t that what they were talking about back then?
Debra Wardlow: They said a big movie theater, but every time we go to Chicago, ain't nothing, still ain't nothing there.
Keith Wardlow: Ain't never seen nothing but empty land. I mean, I tease my wife all the time. They made us move for nothing. They really made us move for nothing.
Robin Amer: That’s next time, on The City.
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Our show this week was reported and produced by Wilson Sayre, Jenny Casas, Sam Greenspan and me, Robin Amer.
This episode was edited by Amy Pyle with additional editing from Matt Doig.
Ben Austen is our story consultant. Original music and mixing is by Hannis Brown. Legal review by Tom Curley.
Additional production by Taylor Maycan, Fil Corbitt, Isobel Cockerell and Bianca Medious.
Our executive producer is Liz Nelson.
Chris Davis is our VP for investigations. Scott Stein is our VP of product. The USA TODAY Network’s president and publisher is Maribel Wadsworth.
Thank you to our sponsors for supporting the show. And special thanks this week to Ethan Michaeli, Misha Euceph and Danielle Svetcov.
Archival audio courtesy of WGN and Living on Earth.
Additional support comes from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Social Justice News Nexus at Northwestern University.
I’m Robin Amer. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @thecitypod. Or visit our website, where you can see photos of the cleanup and more.
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In late February 1996, about five weeks into the clean-up, the environment-focused public radio show Living on Earth sent reporter Shirley Jahad to check on the clean-up. She visited North Lawndale and talked to people who lived in the two apartment buildings that stood on the very same lot as the dump. Read Jahad’s story here.