RIVERSIDE – On a typical warm day, you can find a handful of people enjoying the public space behind Village Hall and the library along the banks of the Des Plaines River. Joggers wind their way along the public footpaths, fisherman cast their lines into the slow current and bird watchers spy on Canadian Geese.
Recently, chainsaw-wielding volunteers can be seen, too. They’ve been slicing into tree after tree along the north bank of the river in an effort to restore the area to its former glory.
The effort has been led by Jerry Buttimer, a Riverside resident, who said that the trees and plants his group removes are weeds that have been allowed to ruin one of the best views in town.
“This has been overgrown for over 50 years,” Buttimer said, gesturing to the thin trees and snaking vines that crowd out the view of the river behind the Riverside library. “Here’s this drop-dead gorgeous river, especially from a high elevation, and now you can stand behind this amazing piece of architecture and you can see the suspension bridge.”
The group’s goal is to tame the unkempt greenery by removing invasive species and opening up what Buttimer calls “pockets” in the trees that cover the north bank to allow people to view the river as well as construct a footpath, complete with safety fence, running from the H. Wallace Caldwell Memorial Suspension bridge to the back of the library.
The group is acting with the blessing of the Board of Trustees. Village employees have given their time and expertise to make sure the work goes smoothly and the proper plants are spared.
A few have pitched in with the labor, such as Trustee Michael Foley, who said he hopes that projects such as this can begin the process of bringing people back to the river, something the man who planned Riverside, Fredrick Law Olmstead, intended.
“Olmstead wanted us to be near the river. ... I think as a town we’ve neglected the views,” Foley said.
“This is why we are here, because he found this terrific river with great land and designed the town around the contours of the land,” Buttimer said. “So here we are 140 years later, trimming away the weeds so we can see what he brought us here for.”
Some of those weeds include the Buckthorn tree: A thin tree with shiny bark that grows to be about ten feet tall and the number one offender among invasive tree species in the area.
Other trees near the water, such as a group of willows whose wispy branches frame the scenic view of the river’s bend, were so covered up with vines and crowded by invasive trees that they were nearly invisible.
“You couldn’t see these trees until this morning,” Buttimer said.
Foley said the project is just the beginning for the river front.
“We’re going to continue developing places like this along the river and looking to find ways to get people down to the river,” Foley said.
One of the main obstacles in the way is money, which Foley said the village has little to spare on grand projects.
“Since we’re understaffed and the village is underbudgeted, these efforts rely on volunteers like Jerry and his group.”
Buttimer said that to the village’s credit, they have supported the project despite not taking actions like appropriating funds.
Foley encouraged the public to come forward to the board at their public meetings with any ideas that could revitalize the riverfront. He said some good ideas that had been presented so far included building a canoe ramp.
Buttimer said one of the big decisions the village needs to make is what to do with the seldom-used public building by the Village Hall that once held a youth center. He said it was discovered the building was once the dining room for a hotel built in the late 1800s. Buttimer said the structure was likely built there so high-class visitors could gaze out at the river and admire the same views that they are trying to restore.
“It was likely the best view in town,” Buttimer said.
He hopes it will be again.