CHICAGO — Investigative reporter Robin Amer likens her new podcast “The City” to the HBO crime drama “The Wire” — only it’s true.
Set in ’90s North Lawndale, the first season tackles how a man with ties to the Chicago mob managed to turn a pair of vacant lots into a massive illegal dumping site — and how a few concerned neighbors (and eventually, the FBI) fought to take him down.
When she first pitched the show years ago, Amer received some skepticism about the scope of her “extremely ambitious” project. Now, her team is unpacking the FBI’s Operation Silver Shovel in a 10-episode, narrative podcast for USA Today. The series highlights the environmental justice fight led by community residents and includes some of the 1,200 secret FBI audio tape recordings obtained earlier this year by Gannett.
Amer, who previously worked at the Chicago Reader, WBEZ, and DNAinfo, decided to focus on this story for the inaugural season because she believes it reveals how a city like Chicago actually works.
Beyond the dumping, the podcast details the impact of segregation, de-industrialization and pollution. And it shines light on the power struggles that exist to this day between neighborhood residents, aldermen, business owners and political forces.
In the first episode, Amer recalls being stunned after first hearing about the dump sites, one of which grew six stories high, “despite everything I knew about Chicago.”
“How corrupt and ruthless it can be, how stark the divisions are between black and white, rich and poor, between the people who hoard power and those who will fight to get their fair share,” she says in the podcast.
In her decade of reporting in Chicago, Amer has covered architecture, housing discrimination, and became interested in environmental issues while reporting on the Southeast Side for DNAinfo. She was intrigued by how the “historical changes in our cities have led to this new present wave of environmental problems” in neighborhoods like those on the Southeast Side.
“Even though [The City] starts in 1990 with this pair of illegal dumps in North Lawndale… it feels so relevant to the present because there are no shortages of very contentious [environmental] issues in Chicago and nationally,” Amer told Block Club Chicago, pointing to similar fights being forged by residents in Southeast Chicago, Little Village and Englewood.
“The laws are somewhat more robust [than they were in ’90s] to protect communities but so much of the ways in which we talk about these issues and the way that communities have to protect themselves, and the way that companies and politicians respond are eerily similar,” Amer said.
To this day, residents — not scientists — are tasked with finding proof that an environmental threat is linked to a specific health issue.
While the Flint, Mich. crisis was able to prove a very clear, direct line between lead in the water and actual harm, other environmental fights aren’t so clear, Amer said.
“It’s very difficult for these communities to get adequate, quick responses from people in power because that line is often not so clear,” she said.
Neighborhoods like Little Village, North Lawndale and the Southeast Side often become “sacrifice zones” to companies that pollute, which has led environmental justice activists to focus their attention in these areas.
“They are seen as neighborhoods that are dispensable that don’t matter,” Amer said.
“I feel like that is how North Lawndale was treated back in the ’90s, it’s how this community in Englewood was treated around the expansion of the Norfolk Southern railroad, and it’s how the neighborhood on the Southeast Side has been treated …and that to me, as a reporter, and as a citizen is just outrageous.”
Listen to the latest episode of “The City” here.
(Reporter Mauricio Peña attended graduate school with podcast creator Robin Amer, and previously worked with her at DNAinfo Chicago.)