In the spring of 1990, Gladys Woodson and her neighbors in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood started to notice dump trucks rolling down their streets—some sporting mismatched license plates and arriving as late as two or three a.m.
Woodson had lived in a historic greystone since 1970. She was president of her street’s block club, a tight-knit community of neighbors who looked out for each other. So other residents would come to her with questions and concerns.
When the trucks were first brought to her attention, Woodson says she didn’t give them much thought.
“I just thought, ‘Well, somebody's just parking their trucks in there,’” said Woodson, “’til a guy said, ‘Ms. Woodson, come down, look at this. Do you know that somebody’s over there dumping in that lot?’”
And they were. Load after load of broken concrete, rebar, bricks and stones.
When the dump eventually reached its peak, it sprawled across a lot the size of 13 football fields — or, about half the size of the Pentagon. It towered six stories above the neighborhood, creating a habitat for rats and crime, and filling the air with noxious dust.
But it wasn’t just trucks going in and out of this lot. There was also a limo, and the guy inside it —a heavy-set man who liked to wear colorful sweaters.
“Any time you see anybody drive over in a vacant lot in a limo,” Woodson told USA TODAY, “you know it's no good.”
A Chicago story
Before the dump trucks came, before the lawsuits and the secret FBI tapes, before the arrests and the president’s executive order, before “the mountain” appeared and then disappeared— along with the guy who put it there – there was then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Sworn into office April 24, 1989, Daley vowed to bring his city roaring back. In the 40 years leading up to his inauguration, Chicago lost nearly a million people and hundreds of thousands of jobs. The new mayor wanted to stem that tide.
He began a major push to revamp Chicago’s aging downtown, paying special attention to tourist-friendly destinations like Navy Pier and the now-iconic Millennium Park, with its big silver bean sculpture and Frank Gehry-designed amphitheater. He also set about rebuilding crucial parts of the city’s infrastructure, including roads and highways.
By the spring of 1990, the city was full of workers in hard hats and orange vests who were breaking down concrete, jackhammering asphalt, gathering up dirt and gravel, loading it into dump trucks and hauling it away.
Law-abiding trucking companies carted this debris to distant landfills. Others headed west.
They drove through Greektown and what was left of Little Italy, past the University of Illinois-Chicago and the stadium where the Bulls and Blackhawks play, past the county hospital to a pair of vacant lots in North Lawndale—near Gladys Woodson’s home.
The man in the limo
That’s when John Christopher saw his chance. He owed money to construction companies. At least one had sued him in county court, alleging he owed them nearly $80,000.
A source who did business with John Christopher during this time worked for another local construction company that recycled concrete as part of its business. He didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to talk to us and he was afraid of losing his job.
He said, around this time, he had a call from John Christopher, who asked to meet him in a vacant lot in North Lawndale. At first he was confused. But then John Christopher explains. He was going to pay the company back by allowing them to dump construction debris in the lot.
Construction companies usually pay to dump in legal, permitted landfills. John Christopher was offering up his lots in North Lawndale as a cheaper alternative.
John Christopher was asking for as little as $10 a load—a figure he later admitted to in court. He’d allow the company to dump for cheaper than he would at a real landfill, and gradually make up what he owed.
John Christopher pitched it as a win-win. He would repay his debts, and the company would save a bunch of money by dumping on the sites—illegally. And the more all these companies dumped in North Lawndale, the more money John Christopher would make, and the more these construction companies would save.
The average dump truck can haul up to 24 tons of stuff, and each new truck that drove into the lot added to the pile of debris.
Woodson and others were increasingly alarmed by the growing mountain.
“I think, ‘Oh no, we can’t have this over here. This is bad for health, bad for our children, bad for our houses.’” Woodson recalls. “You know, it's just going to take our neighborhood down.”
So the residents of North Lawndale decided to fight back. What they didn’t know then was that their battle to eliminate the dumps would last years.
Their opponents would include not just the powerful Chicago mob, but corrupt local politicians, the spectre of racism in America and one man—an FBI informant who orchestrated the dumping from the back of a limousine.
In a years-long investigation that led to the release of secretly recorded FBI tapes and evidence of environmental racism, USA TODAY found out what really happened in North Lawndale. Now we’re telling the story in the best possible format for this tale: audio.
The City, USA TODAY’s new investigative podcast series, launches today (Sept. 24).
To find out what happened next in North Lawndale, subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. You can also go to thecitypodcast.com, where you’ll find full episodes and additional material we dug up while reporting this story, like photos, court documents, videos and more. Follow the podcast on Twitter @thecitypod and on Facebook.