By Ben Joravsky

It’s one o’clock on a sunny September afternoon and Chris Casey’s right where he wants to be–in the woods on the bank of the Chicago River, away from the expanding subdivisions of the northwest side.

But Casey doesn’t like what he sees and hears. The walls of the bridge above the river are covered with graffiti. From the distance comes the faint roar of the traffic on Foster and Pulaski. “We’re in danger of losing the good things we have,” says Casey. “We’re building too close to the river. We’re losing our floodplains. We’re building on cemeteries, we’re knocking over gravestones. Isn’t anything sacred?”

The lament’s not new. Casey’s just the latest in a long line of northwest-side activists who’ve been sounding an alarm few developers or politicians want to hear. But his voice is distinctive and his background’s unique. He’s a streetwise Chicago firefighter, a former Golden Gloves champ who learned to love nature while serving in the Green Berets. He’s not part of the inner circle of environmentalists; the downtown big shots don’t know his name. And though his preservation cause might seem eccentric, he vows not to quit it. “Chris is a great guy–very committed,” says Leo Damask, a neighbor and fellow naturalist. “I tell him if there’s a good reason to be heard, stand up and be heard. If one person can make a difference, everyone should try.”

Casey was a working-class kid, born and raised in Chicago. His father, a police officer, died in 1977. His mother moved her family of five from one congested north-side neighborhood to another. “I joined the Boy Scouts but we never got to see nature,” he says. “We camped out in a big industrial garage on Broadway. One time we went to a forest preserve. It was in the winter and under two feet of snow. We looked at the snow and froze and then went back home. That was my outdoor experience.”

In 1979 Casey graduated from Lake View High School and joined the army. “It opened my eyes,” he says, “and once they were opened I was never going to let them shut.” He served in the special forces, the Green Berets. “I’m proud of that, though I consider myself a pacifist at heart. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But I was a medic. We’re allowed to be more human than the demolition or weapons experts.”

Casey camped in the jungles of Venezuela and in snow caves above the arctic circle. “The army exposed me to the wilderness and I learned to love it. I was supposed to be doing raids and ambushes and I was listening to birdcalls. I heard the whippoorwill’s song and fell in love with nature.”

In 1982 he left active duty and returned to Chicago. Over the next decade he worked as a medic at the Cook County Jail, studied a variety of martial arts, boxed competitively, married and had children, earned a college degree, ran several marathons, and went to work for the fire department. “I never lost my interest in the wilderness,” he says. “I’d take my wife, Wendy, and our kids camping all the time. I read a lot about trees and rivers. I look things up on the Internet. This is my passion.”

In 1993 he and his family moved to North Mayfair. “I adopted the wilderness that was around me,” he says. “I canoed the Chicago River and jogged through the forest preserves and explored all the trails and paths. I saw a lot of heartbreaking stuff. There’s so much garbage in the woods, so much graffiti. I saw panty shields and prophylactics in the river, just raw sewage.”

Casey had moved near one of the city’s last great patches of undeveloped land, a giant square of cemeteries, forest, and former farmland bordered by Bryn Mawr and Foster on the north and south and by Central Park and Cicero on the east and west. Years earlier, the county had bought up the forest just west of the cemeteries and turned it into a preserve, La Bagh Woods. Old-timers figured the area would remain undeveloped forever. After all, no one could build in the forest preserve, and who would want to live among graveyards?

But by the early 1990s the cemetery owners had sold off some of their property. Today the area’s bustling. There’s a shopping center anchored by a Jewel at the corner of Foster and Pulaski. On Kostner north of Foster, the western edge of what was Saint Lucas Cemetery, there’s a complex of town houses and condos; north of that, on land once owned by Montrose Cemetery, is a new subdivision called the Residences of Sauganash. “I was appalled by what I saw when I ran through the woods,” says Casey. “I took pictures of the desecration–piles of gravestones, like they’d just bulldozed over the graves.”

Each development (including the shopping center) drew strong opposition from local activists such as Damask and Dale Bolling, both of the North Mayfair Improvement Association, who pointed out what to them seemed obvious–that development would create flooding, since the floodplain of the Chicago River was being paved over.

The developers hired consultants who dismissed this prediction as a wild exaggeration. The city OK’d the projects and the developments went up. But in the last few years it’s seemed as if the environmental nightmare has come true. Rush-hour traffic often comes to a standstill, particularly during the winter and early spring, when the river overflows and closes lanes on Foster and Pulaski. “We’ve been fighting a long time,” says Damask. “Sometimes the flood is so bad we have water covering the baseball diamonds in Gompers Park.”

Casey predicts the congestion and flooding will only get worse. The county, he notes, recently sold off a piece of forest preserve in Rosemont for development. “How do we know they won’t do that with La Bagh?” he asks. He’s troubled by city plans to build a bike path along the Chicago River. Even something as apparently innocuous as the renaming of a slice of La Bagh in honor of former county commissioner Irene Hernandez worries him. “Ella La Bagh was a naturalist who fought to set aside land for nature,” says Casey. “It’s one thing to cut into woods named for her. You might not get a great outcry for cutting into the Irene Hernandez Woods.”

Casey’s concerns are off base, county officials contend. There is, they say, no plan to sell any part of La Bagh, even though developers have long lusted to build a road through its eastern edge. And there’s nothing to be read into the name change. “It’s still La Bagh Woods,” says a County Board spokesman. “It’s the Irene Hernandez Family Picnic Area. That’s just a portion of La Bagh. That’s all, nothing more to it.”

And the bike path has been endorsed by several environmental groups, including the Friends of the Chicago River.

As for developers, they say demand for housing in the area remains strong. “It’s beautiful out there,” says Rick Radwill, vice president of production for Terrestris Development, which is overseeing construction of the Residences of Sauganash. “We didn’t upset any graves. Before we started this project the gravestones were removed. The cemetery was talking about selling their property before we got involved. When we took over there were no gravestones.”

Radwell says he’s not even concerned about flooding. “Nah–you can engineer all that out. It’s very well designed. We’re virtually sold-out.”

Casey’s not convinced. To prove his point, he leads a hike through the small wooded area between the Sauganash development and La Bagh Woods. “This is where you’ll see a lot of the gravestones,” he says. He’s a tall man with a long stride; his dog, Lucky, runs ahead of him, straining at her leash. All around him gravestones lie in the brush. There must be a dozen of them. “Look at this one,” he says. “I. Shannon 1922. Rest in Peace.”

He slips from the woods into a new backyard and it’s as though he’s magically materialized in Schaumburg. He walks across the lawn, down a driveway, and past a basketball hoop to a newly asphalted street. These are the Residences of Sauganash: 81 neo-Victorian homes, some occupied, others under construction.

The rest of Chicago is laid out in a grid. But in here it’s a maze. A street sign says Kildare, but the street bears little relation to the Kildare that dead-ends on the other side of Foster. This is a circular street that inexplicably becomes Lowell as it reaches the halfway point of the subdivision and turns north. The only access to the subdivision is from Bryn Mawr. The homes on the east overlook Montrose Cemetery. “How bizarre,” says Casey, “to look out your window every day and see a bunch of graves.”

He heads west into La Bagh Woods. His shoes squish in the grass, sopping wet though it hasn’t rained in days. “Of course it’s wet,” he says. “It’s a floodplain. It’s here to filter the runoff.” He points to reedy plants growing alongside a house. “Those are full-grown cattails. That’s a swamp species. It usually grows in a marsh.”

He walks about a quarter mile and comes to the graffiti-scarred railroad bridge across the river. On the river’s banks lie slabs of concrete and other debris. “I’ve been calling the county and the city to have this graffiti painted out. One time I saw a Streets and Sanitation crew sleeping here. I woke them up and asked why they didn’t clean up the graffiti. They told me, ‘It’s county property.’ I called the county and they said, ‘It’s railroad property.’ I took some pictures of some real nasty racist and satanic stuff and gave them to the alderman. Finally the city sent someone over to paint it out. But it’s back. It sends the wrong message. You go to nature to get away. But come in here and your impression is, ‘Are gangbangers going to knife me?'”

He picks up an empty beer bottle. “It’s a disgrace how people behave. I once saw some people digging up plants. They were looking for medicinal plants. I asked one of the women, ‘Are you looking for wild ginger?’ She said, ‘Which one is that?’ It was like she wanted to know so she could collect that too. I said, ‘You’re not supposed to do this.’ Should I have to tell her that? Shouldn’t she know? Maybe we need more education. Or law enforcement. Sometimes I call the police. But there’s no address. It’s hard to get through. People bring in grills and have barbecues, then they dump their charcoal at the base of a tree. They’re toasting the roots. I see guys come in with cases of beer but I know they’re not bringing those bottles out. The county puts in garbage cans and the raccoons go in there. They should have raccoon-proof cans. Because when the garbage gets knocked over it all ends up in the river.”

He comes to a makeshift campsite. “It must have been a big fire,” he says, fingering the remains. “It was hot enough to burn metal.”

His most immediate concern is the proposed bike path. He’s against it–at least he’s against the latest route, which he learned about at a public meeting at Mather High School. He’s always attending meetings, collecting whatever plans and proposals the city hands out. He has to. The city can be slippery about such things. It releases a proposal and then pulls it back at the first hint of strong opposition, as if to say, “Why are you so worried? Nothing’s set in stone.” But when attention’s diverted or opposition fades, back comes the plan with one or two minor modifications. “I collect maps,” he says. “I’m ready for any rebuttal. I have all the documents.”

From his back pocket he pulls out a city map of present and future bicycle trails. He points to the proposed route, which shows the path coming within a few feet of the river. “They call it a bike path but it’s really a road. It may not be a big road–it may not allow cars. But as far as the river’s concerned it’s a road. They’ll knock down trees. They say they won’t knock down oak trees, but you know how that goes. They bring in work crews, and no one’s watching. Maybe they don’t mean to, maybe it’s a mistake, and you lose an oak tree. It takes 100 years for an oak tree to grow, and just like that they’re gone.

“You know how they build that path? They put down asphalt and under the asphalt’s crushed limestone. That affects the pH of the river. That scares migratory birds that nest here. It disturbs the river’s flow. The river meanders. It’s dynamic. You can’t build a bike path next to that. The river will only undermine the bike path. It will overflood so you can’t even use it.”

He climbs a crest. “If they’re going to build the path, build it here, above the river.”

He leaves the woods and walks along Bryn Mawr, which is lined with pleasant single-family homes. A woman pushes a baby stroller. “This is Sauganash,” he says. “They probably won’t build the bike path on the crest because it’s too close to these houses and the people won’t want a path nearby. That’s what they call a political solution. And the river pays the price.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.