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Sidewalks: Silent killer of great oaks

Bike-riding Elmwood Park arborist Scott Carlini struggles to save trees.

Elmwood Park resident Scott Carlini pauses on a ride in a Cook County Forest Preserve. He is devoting his life to helping people better understand and protect trees.
Elmwood Park resident Scott Carlini pauses on a ride in a Cook County Forest Preserve. He is devoting his life to helping people better understand and protect trees.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Scott Carlini rides west along Bloomingdale Avenue on a lovely mid-November day. At 79th Avenue, we detour south and park our bikes before a wide tree stump where the night before Carlini had penciled “White Oak” and “163 yo.”

He points to the center of the stump.

“Here’s the little tree, 160 years ago,” he says. “If you notice, the rings are really small here when the tree was young because it was in a crowded forest. Then in 1926, they came in here and cleared out the forest and started building some of these bungalows. Once the area was opened up to more light, then we’ve got the big rings, because it grew a lot faster.”

Carlini knows trees, but then he’s spent years biking around Elmwood Park, neighboring suburbs and Chicago, trying to save trees, particularly ash, which he sometimes injects with his own formula of anti-emerald ash borer insecticide. Carlini cuts a distinctive figure: long hair, neon orange vest and stocking cap, Pall Mall cigarette often in one hand.

“Oh boy, oh boy,” he says, sadly. “See here? Where they filed the roots away. That’s super bad. It’s stupid.”

The white oak fell victim to a human ailment — the conviction that sidewalks must run straight.

“In the old days, we used to move the sidewalk around it,” he says. “Normally this tree would have lasted another 200 years if it wasn’t damaged. But some sidewalk guy ground that away, and that’s not cool.”

Arborist Scott Carlini points to the stump of a white oak in Elmwood Park that died after its roots were ground away to make room for a sidewalk. The suburb no longer curves sidewalks around trees.
Arborist Scott Carlini points to the stump of a white oak in Elmwood Park that died after its roots were ground away to make room for a sidewalk. The suburb no longer curves sidewalks around trees.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

I knock on the door of the house. A lady answers.

“Last year we had to replace our sidewalks which were extremely buckled,” she says. “We were forced to cut the tree down. The village refused to allow a wrap-around sidewalk. They said they don’t do it anymore. They had to cut the root way down. We were flabbergasted.”

She didn’t want me to use her name.

“I don’t want the village to get mad at me,” she says.

We push on toward the Des Plaines River, entering the Cook County Forest Preserve at Evans Field.

“This is only an 80-year-old woods,” he says. “This is all farmland.”

We pause before an enormous sycamore. The yellow leaves scattered around are almost a foot across.

“Sycamore is not native to Chicago,” Carlini explains. “Anytime you see a sycamore, the farmer had to plant these. They’re beautiful, but not native.”

We pull up before an expanse of dead trees — dozens of dead ash.

“All killed by the borer,” he says, of the little green insect that motivated him. “In 2004, when I started reading about the borer in Michigan, I came down here, I spent all day with the trees, knowing, here we are, we’re so close to the city, so secluded here, yet the world was coming in. I knew that in a few years all this would be changing. I had a job to do, I promised I would be there in the forefront telling people how to save the trees.”

That’s when he started treating trees himself.

“The forest preserve was not going to treat any of the trees,” he says. “The mistake was they thought people had to treat ALL the trees, they should have treated a few, I ended up treating a few of the best.”

Biking through the forest preserve, I venture, he must encounter some, ah, interesting situations.

“I don’t begrudge people doing what they do,” he says. “It’s wildlife.”

Wondering how Carlini’s efforts are received in Elmwood Park, I later called village President Angelo “Skip” Saviano.

“Everybody knows Scott,” Saviano laughed. “He’s in the neighborhood a long time. His father was a chef at the Alpine Country Club. Scott’s been around. He watches our trees.”

What about the sidewalks?

“We’ve dealt with that,” he says. “Years ago, they planted these big trees on small parkways, they push the sidewalks up, people fall and sue the village. We don’t cut down trees unless they’re not healthy. We have a real aggressive evaluation system. We do our best at preserving.”

What about the white oak on 79th?

He sighed.

“That’s more of an engineering thing,” he said. “Our village engineers evaluate those situations. They’re supposedly the experts.”

That includes Carlini.

“He’s passionate about the trees in town,” said Saviano. “He’s a concerned citizen, and we listen to him. He’s really a great resource for us.”

After pausing on the banks of the Des Plaines River while he finished another cigarette, we plunge deeper into the woods, along a narrow trail. A deer flashes by, 10 feet away.

“The First Nation people are gone,” Carlini says. “But their living spirit is still in these trees. We could start preserving instead of cutting down.”