The gray-haired firefighter didn’t know anyone who was voting for Brandon Johnson, and couldn’t understand why anyone would, either. He was holding down the end of the bar in the Blackthorn Pub, on 111th Street in Mount Greenwood, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a Michelob Ultra, talking about the state of his neighborhood, and the state of the city. In the February 28 election, Mount Greenwood voted almost unanimously for Paul Vallas, with most precincts giving him more than 80 percent of their votes, and will do so again on April 4, judging by the yard signs in front of the bungalows on the side streets.
“I don’t think he’s our best choice, but he’s the only choice for this election, because of the safety of the neighborhoods, and how what’s his name is going to treat the police department,” said the firefighter, who would give his name only as Tommy. “I don’t even want to say his name. His Chicago Teachers Union that he’s a part of is a disaster.”
Mount Greenwood is the most conservative corner of Chicago, having supported Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020. An urban peninsula jutting into the suburbs, bounded on the north by Evergreen Park and on the south by Merrionette Park, it has a higher percentage of city workers than any neighborhood, as well as a higher percentage of native-born Chicagoans (two categories that tend to overlap). Most of those city workers are cops or firefighters, so along with the Vallas signs in the yards and shop windows are signs declaring, “Thank You First Responders” and “We Support DG #FIGHTLIKEAGOLDEN,” in honor of Danny Golden, a Mount Greenwood police officer who was shot and paralyzed while breaking up a bar fight in Beverly. The neighborhood has raised $1.5 million to assist Golden in his recovery. Mount Greenwood looks after its own.
“City workers, it’s our last resort to live in safety,” Tommy asserted. “I would say the balance of the city depends on this election.” If Johnson wins, “there’s probably going to be a rush of people leaving. Just me being a city worker, watching so many leave as soon as they can. I’m not the most political person, but this election seems to be more important than most.”
“The only question in this election is are you for the police or against the police?” shouted another man at the bar.
Mount Greenwood has not experienced a murder in years, but residents are anxious about street crime seeping into their sheltered redoubt. Down the street from the Blackthorn is MG Embroidery and Screen Printing, a t-shirt shop with a “Police Lives Matter” hoodie in the window. Its owner, an off-duty firefighter named Bill, reminisced about the days when, in his telling, you didn’t have to watch your back in Mount Greenwood.
“There has been attempted carjackings, robberies,” Bill said. “When I was a kid, we used to have beat cops in this neighborhood. Now, out of nowhere, gone.”
Bill voted Trump for president. For mayor, he will vote Vallas, who has promised to bring back beat cops. Actually, he’ll vote against Johnson, since Vallas isn’t even a conservative.
“Why would you vote for Johnson?” he asked. “He’s telling you he’s gonna defund the police. Johnson, it’s gonna be more handouts, giveaways. Eventually, someone’s paying for this. How is that helping people not be junkies? I pick people up with heroin addictions. What are we doing for them? Is it going to be the end of the world if Johnson wins? No. Is it going to be good for the city? No. I think you’ll be surprised how Johnson’s going to lose. People all over the city are tired of ‘defund the police.’”
Not everywhere in the city. Logan Square is 16 miles due north of Mount Greenwood (they share Kedzie Avenue), and two hours away by CTA. Politically, the distance between the two neighborhoods is even greater. Here, along Milwaukee Avenue, the so-called hipster highway, are the only precincts where Johnson received more than half the vote in the first round. If this is indeed the most polarized mayoral election in memory, Mount Greenwood and Logan Square, two neighborhoods barely aware of each other’s existence, represent each pole — the traditional vs. the modern, conservative vs. progressive, Baby Boomers vs. Millennials, tradespeople vs. college graduates, natives vs. transplants. The 35th Ward, which is represented by a gay, democratic socialist alderman, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, not only gave Johnson his highest percentage on Feb. 28, it gave Bernie Sanders (who has endorsed Johnson) his highest percentage in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
“We’re happy,” Ramirez-Rosa said this week, explaining his ward’s support for Johnson; “we have hope.”
(On another occasion, Ramirez-Rosa explained the conditions which created the political character known as the Milwaukee Avenue Progressive: “As gentrification has moved west, you have a situation arise where you have longtime working-class neighborhoods like Logan Square, Hermosa, Albany Park, see an influx of younger, primarily white progressives. That creates the mix necessary to elect someone like me. You have young white progressives and longtime Latino immigrant families agreeing very broadly on things like rent control, the need to raise the minimum wage, the need to support public sector unions, and the rights of workers generally.”)
The businesses along Milwaukee Avenue — tattoo parlors, body piercers, thrift shops, vegan restaurants, dispensaries — are certainly different from the taverns and travel agents and tax services on 111th Street. So are the signs in the windows: LOVE WINS, beside a rainbow flag; Stop Asian Hate; Black Lives Matter. On Sunday afternoon, in the storefront office of United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, Jonathan Nagy was overseeing a group of artists designing Brandon Johnson posters. A 33-year-old queer artist who moved to Logan Square from his small hometown in Ohio in 2016, Nagy has a day job baking bread next door at Loaf Lounge. He was attracted to Logan Square because he was “looking for a political community” and “wanted intentional spaces to meet my neighbors.” He was attracted to Johnson’s campaign because “Brandon Johnson is for poor and working people. The way he talks about his vision for the mayor’s office is one of inclusion: progressives, labor unions, community leaders, grass roots officials. We all feel so inspired by the possibility of having a movement candidate in office. Johnson gives us hope. Vallas is really leaning into narratives that hold people apart and create divisions. The reason Brandon Johnson is in the runoff is because folks like me volunteered every minute to get him there. I would be insanely shocked if people who are concerned about public safety are knocking on doors. They’re the people, when we knock on their doors, scream at us to go away.”
Is Nagy concerned about public safety?
“I don’t wake up every morning worried about crime,” he said. “Public safety is addressed not through police but rather through investment to get at the root cause of the issues that cause crime.”
Nagy sat at a table piled with art supplies: crayons, brushes, acrylic paint, markers, scissors. Nearby, a graphic designer was creating a “Soviet-inspired” Johnson poster on a laptop, while young people painted Johnson slogans in the window: “Tax the Rich,” “Housing 4 All.” Cecilia Acevedo was watching her 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter draw Johnson posters on cardboard. Both children are students at Brentano Elementary Math & Science Academy in Logan Square. Acevedo has been spending 15 to 20 hours a week phone banking and canvassing for Johnson, because she believes the former schoolteacher and Chicago Teachers Union organizer will be more supportive of public education.
“I feel like he’s obviously had a track record of being alongside community members in getting resources for schools,” she said. “I feel it’s a shame that administrators and teachers have to jump through hoops to get resources.”
It’s hard to say who’s going to win on April 4. One recent poll had Vallas winning, 44%-39%; another had Johnson winning, 46%-44%. If it’s Vallas, no neighborhood will be more relieved than Mount Greenwood; if it’s Johnson, no neighborhood will be happier than Logan Square.