The 2016 presidential election confirmed what most of us already knew: Chicago is a blue city in a red nation. But even within this blue island there are some red oases, chief among them Mount Greenwood, in the 19th Ward on the city’s far southwest side.
Days before the election the neighborhood drew attention after a white off-duty police officer shot and killed 25-year-old Joshua Beal, a black man from Indianapolis, who was reported to have been waving a gun. In the wake of the shooting, Black Lives Matter staged protests in the heart of the neighborhood at 111th and Kedzie, and were met by furious locals—most of them white—who brandished pro-police signs and flags and hurled racist slurs.
On November 8, nearly 70 percent of the 19th Ward’s 54th precinct—bordered by 111th Street on the south, 109th on the north, Kedzie Avenue on the east, and Drake Avenue on the west—voted for Trump. It was the city’s most pro-Trump precinct. In the precincts around it, at least half of the votes cast were for Trump.
And so it was fitting to spend inauguration day in this corner of Chicago’s Trumplandia.
In 1992 Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns described Mount Greenwood is “an insular, Leave It to Beaver world where white people can live out entire lives without ever getting to know a black person, where people rarely venture beyond understood borders.” A quarter century later it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
I arrived in the neighborhood around 10 AM. A jaunt around the few blocks comprising the 54th precinct reveals modest brick homes decorated with Irish flags and “White Sox Country” signs. I spotted one solitary Trump-Pence campaign lawn sign across the street from a house with a pro-police flag displaying the symbolic thin blue line that separates the public from anarchy. At Saint Christina Catholic school, white kids decked out in red-white-and-black uniforms noisily filed in from recess.
Shortly after Trump gave his inaugural address, I hunkered down with a crew of early-bird regulars at Barraco’s, an Italian restaurant and bar steps away from the spot where Beal was shot. Kevin, a mustachioed 61-year-old retired semi-trailer truck salesman, was nursing a scotch with ice at the granite counter. “He gave a good speech,” Kevin said. “I thought it was great.”
Kevin admitted that he’s not sure what to expect from the Trump administration. “He may have great intentions, but he’s still dealing with this mess, he’s still dealing with Washington.” While Kevin said he never liked or voted for Obama, he described Michelle as a stellar first lady, and doubted that Melania could measure up.
It wasn’t long before conversation drifted to Beal’s shooting and racial tensions in Chicago. The bartender, a short white woman named Mary, admitted she didn’t vote for Trump. But she said that under Obama local race relations have taken a turn for the worse. “What happened to the 80s and the 90s?” she said. “People were more accepting of each other. Nowadays black people look at white people, white people look at black people, and it’s like, ‘aaah,'” she said, producing a guttural dismissive sound. “I think it’s shitty.”
Mary and Kevin continued to discuss the Beal shooting, which he called “ridiculous.”
“I think most people just want to keep things low-key, they don’t want to start any trouble,” Mary said. “But people here are so tired of bullshit that when that happened, they were like ‘No, you’re not gonna turn it around and say it was a racial thing.’ [Beal] did something stupid.”
Kevin noted the city’s high levels of gun violence.
“It’s ridiculous. Don’t bring it over to the nice neighborhoods,” Mary said. “Don’t come up and pop out some guns. We don’t do that around here.”
Their shared sentiment was that Beal got what was coming to him.
“He pulls out a gun, starts waving a gun around—the cop shoots him,” Kevin said. “There was a white guy shot at a bar down the street here about a year ago. He pulled a gun out, cops shot him.”
“When you pull out a gun, people are gonna get testy. Doesn’t matter what color you are,” Mary said. “You don’t pull out a gun. You just caused your own problems.”
Though Mount Greenwood is nearly 90 percent white and a working-class community with a high concentration of police and firefighters, not everyone in the area is celebrating Trump’s ascension.
Across the bar, Mike, a 31-year-old paramedic who works the night shift at an emergency room in south-suburban Harvey, was indignant when asked if he voted for Trump. “Fuck, no, I didn’t vote for him!” he spat as he joined the conversation.
From the perspective of a health-care professional, Mike is worried about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and thinks that much of the pro-Trump fervor in Mount Greenwood can be chalked up to local “hillbilly” racism. Though he was born and raised in the area, he pulled no punches when discussing his friends’ and neighbors’ political views.
“In this area, Obama’s like the fucking next coming of Satan, basically,” he said. “There’s a percentage of people that hate him because he is African-American, unfortunately, yes. But I think a larger majority of people will say they feel like they paid more money for people to get insurance that they think they shouldn’t have to pay for. When the Affordable Care Act came out, so many people around here were fucking furious because our taxes did go up, like, a considerable amount. Everyone thinks all they’re paying for is the ‘people over there,’ like, people in the hood.”
Mike added that “Obama phones” (actually a pre-Obama, nongovernmental program to provide free or low-cost cellular service to low-income households) also threw the local populace into a rage. “It was a huge contributor to why people were angry, and that’s what led them to vote the shit out of Trump.”
After finishing his beer, Mike offered to take me barhopping to meet other Mount Greenwood stalwarts. We took a short drive down the street to Hinky Dinks Pub, where Jim was nursing a bottle of beer at a Formica counter. The white-haired retired cop said he’s happy that there are few lawyers in Trump’s cabinet. “I think lawyers think more along the lines of what you cannot do. They’re always saying things that you can’t do,” Jim explained. “Whereas the average layman thinks along the lines of what you can do.” He said he’s looking forward to an administration with “more common sense.”
Holly, the bartender, talked about her son, a marine facing imminent deployment to Australia, Norway, or Iraq. (She’s hoping for Australia.) Once Mike found out that she and Jim voted for Trump, he didn’t hesitate in grilling them. But they all soon found common ground, talking about problems with local schools.
One of Mike’s biggest concerns, as the father of a four-year-old daughter, is the lack of good public schools in the area, he says. He grew up going to private Catholic schools, as did most everyone else in the neighborhood, it seems. The cost of a local Catholic grammar school is a few thousand dollars, Mike said, while Mount Greenwood Elementary, a CPS school, has an extensive waiting list. He explained that Catholic high schools are twice as expensive. For most Mount Greenwood parents, enrolling their kids in Morgan Park High School, which is majority black and lower income, is unthinkable.
A Hinky Dinks patron named Randy chimed in. As it turns out, he went to Morgan Park High in the 70s. His parents couldn’t afford Catholic school, he said, but he wouldn’t dare send his kids there today. He feels “fortunate” he’s been able to afford the tuition of a private school, so his kids could learn in what he called “a controlled environment.” “I gotta control their friends,” he said. “That’s what you pay your money for.”
Mike and I made a last stop at Blackthorn Pub, where a half dozen beefy white men sat around a polished wood bar. Mike ordered a beer and a shot of Jameson, and we got to talking with Rich, a Vietnam vet and a retired backhoe operator wearing brown ostrich-hide cowboy boots and a diamond stud in one ear. He described his political views as “a little bit to the right of Attila the Hun.”
Rich expects the new administration taking care of the troops and the veterans. With Trump in the White House, “the military’s gonna be fine,” he said. “The man, as far as I’m concerned, is a miracle worker. How can you go wrong with a guy that has a wife that looks like that?”
Rich said now that Obama’s out of office, he’s planning to donate to 19th Ward alderman Matt O’Shea’s reelection campaign. “I said I would never give any money while Barack Obama was president,” he explained. “Barack Obama was a Marxist. I don’t think he liked this country. And he was a Muslim.”
Eventually Mike had to say good-bye to catch some sleep before starting his shift at 7 PM. Rich advised that I get a job with Fox News instead of working for a “liberal rag” like the Reader. He also recommended that I move down to Mount Greenwood, which he described using one of Trump’s favorite superlatives. “It’s a great neighborhood.”