The City, USA Today’s new multi-part podcast about graft, corruption, environmental racism and general municipal incompetence at the dawn of Richard M. Daley’s administration, is now in its fifth episode, with more on the way. Robin Amer is host, creator and executive producer of The City, and along with reporters Jenny Casas and Wilson Sayre. Amer says she wanted a storytelling experience not unlike The Wire, but non-fiction. And deeply researched and reported. In the first few episodes we meet many of the characters, including the outraged neighbors who watch in amazement as hundreds of giant trucks begin dumping construction debris in a multi-block empty lot at Roosevelt and Kostner.
Delores Robinson was teaching 7th and 8th grade in 1990 at Sumner Elementary School, which is directly across Fifth Avenue from the biggest of these illegal dumps.
“And she watches as they just start dumping it right across the street from the school,” Amer begins. “She is like, “What is happening? Where are these trucks coming from? What is all this stuff? Why are they putting it here?” It’s very confusing and upsetting for her and the other people who see this transpire. And immediately it’s clear to them that this is a bad situation, right. They don’t know exactly who is responsible but in a way it doesn’t matter, right. It’s like if you woke up one day, looked out your front window and saw a line of dump trucks dumping literal ton after ton of construction debris across the street from your house you wouldn’t really care who was responsible for it, you would just say, “No. No, no, no, this does not belong here.”
Amer says The City tells the story of the individuals who were directly affected by this assault, but she also wants to paint the larger picture. For decades, poorer, less politically powerful people have been neglected as newer, more stringent environmental regulations were applied to polluters. The push to include marginalized communities and to extend environmental protections to every citizen came to be called the environmental justice movement.
“You still have today, not just in Chicago but all over the country communities of color that in the environmental movement you might call frontline communities because they live right next to all of this pollution that are literally fighting for survival,” Amer tells us. “And they are having to have the same kinds of battles. They are fighting the same kinds of opposition and the same kind of really misleading rhetoric largely from corporate interests and sometimes dealing with a legal system that isn’t there to support them with a medical community that doesn’t come in and provide them with the information that they need, with a regulatory system that holds their ability to live and breathe in their own communities at the same place as a company’s ability to make money. That has not gone away.”
In fact, the past couple of years has seen a retreat from traditional environmental protection. “And those battles are in some ways even more relevant now,” she explains, “because we have a President that has decided to dismantle a lot of the regulatory structure via the EPA that have been put in place since the 1970s to try and protect communities. And so I would argue that this is in some ways a 20-year old story but it is absolutely a story of the present as well.”
The dumper, John Christopher, built the Roosevelt/Kostner dump and also a smaller one a few blocks south, and was a denizen of what Amer calls “Chicago’s criminal underworld.” He somehow obtained a permit to crush concrete at the site, but then invited roadbuilding and construction contractors to unload there, charging tipping fees that were only a fraction of the cost to dump at a legitimate, legal facility. It appears that his biggest business expense was the $5,000 per month that federal authorities charged he was paying in bribes to the alderman, Bill Henry. (Henry died before his trial and was never convicted of the crime.)
North Lawndale, where this all happened, is a challenged community that deals every day with disinvestment, violence and unemployment. But in some ways things were worse in 1990 when Christopher was operating. The City takes the neighborhood’s history into account when telling this story.
“North Lawndale, if you are talking about the sort of early to mid-20thCentury, had been a neighborhood full of immigrants, largely what we might call white ethnic immigrants, people from Eastern Europe,” Amer explains. “A lot of Jews lived in North Lawndale. I think it had at one point the highest concentration of synagogues in the whole city. And then starting in the ‘50s the neighborhood starts to transition and by I think, 1960 the neighborhood has largely transitioned from being almost entirely white and Jewish to almost entirely black. And many of the black people who are moving to North Lawndale are coming north from the south as part of the great migration.”
“And so this is a moment of incredible transition,” she continues. “And while that transition is happening the neighborhood is also starting to deindustrialize. So it is a neighborhood that was built before zoning, so in addition to houses and churches and schools you had a lot of factories, very big factories right, Western Electric which employed something like 45,000 people. Sears & Roebuck, Zenith, Sunbeam, a lot of really iconic American brands had factories in North Lawndale. But by the time math teacher Delores Robinson had been at Sumner for two decades, she watched as the neighborhood lost something like 100,000 jobs and a third of its population, right. So the neighborhood goes through a certain kind of trauma even before our story starts and it’s that legacy of both being a segregated almost entirely black neighborhood and a neighborhood that has gone through this deindustrialization that kind of sets the stage for the story that we tell.”
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Listen to the audio of this show here.
Read a full transcript of the show here:CN Transcript Oct 11 2018