A reader/listener note: This story contains explicit language.
Robin Amer: There’s this vacant lot on the West Side of Chicago. It’s about a half-dozen miles from the city’s downtown—what we call the Loop. And this lot is huge.
Robin Amer: This lot looks to me like it's about a full city block. It's a big lot.
Gladys Woodson: Yes, it is.
Jacquelyn Rodney: It's a big lot.
Robin Amer: That’s Gladys Woodson and Jacquelyn Rodney, who live nearby.
Robin Amer: And now it's pretty overgrown. There's full-size trees. There's prairie grass. So what did it look like when he was operating?
Gladys Woodson: It was a mess. It was a mess. That's best I can say for it.
Robin Amer: I first started visiting this lot, which is in a neighborhood called North Lawndale, after hearing a story about that something that happened here.
Gladys Woodson: At first he had big 18-wheelers lined up. You know, I just thought, "Well, somebody's just parking their trucks in there.” ’Til a guy says, "Ms. Woodson, come down, look at this. Do you know that somebody’s over there dumping in that lot?”
Robin Amer: I’ve been reporting on Chicago for more than a decade and I’ve reported all kinds of stories of the built environment—about secret tunnels hidden underneath the Loop, and about how you replace a train bridge while the train is still running. I’ve also reported on housing discrimination and predatory lending.
So, stories about all of the remarkable stuff that gets built in Chicago. But also about how it gets built, and all the foul and crooked things that people will do when they think nobody’s looking.
And so the story of what happened on this lot—the story I want to tell you—stunned me despite everything I already knew about Chicago.
About how corrupt and ruthless it can be. About how stark the divisions are between black and white, rich and poor. Between the people who hoard power and the people who will fight for their fair share.
Gladys Woodson: Any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo, you know it's no good.
Robin Amer: This story is about a giant illegal dump. Six stories high.
Jacquelyn Rodney: It was huge mountains—concrete, garbage.
Robin Amer: Built from the broken pieces of a city in the midst of a so-called Renaissance.
Conrad Henry: I thought that downtown, City Hall, would do right by the people. You know, I didn’t think they didn’t care less about us.
Robin Amer: Built not just by dump trucks and bulldozers and construction cranes, but also by corruption, apathy, and greed.
Jim Davis: So, I said, “OK, if a public official came by today and said, ‘I need $500,’ what would you do?” And he reached into his back pocket, and pulled out five $100 bills.
Robin Amer: The man who built this dump had deep ties to Chicago’s criminal underworld.
Tony D’Angelo: He looked at the owner of the restaurant, he goes, “If you don't pay your milk money, you're going to get a pineapple through the window.”
Robin Amer: He profited at the neighborhood's expense.
John Christopher: We’re no altar boys at this fucking table. Let’s put it on the table there. I made a lot of money over there.
Robin Amer: And before he was done, the FBI would be protecting him.
I’m Robin Amer and this is The City, a new podcast from USA TODAY coming September 24. Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.