Brandon Johnson and the Unraveling of Chicago

May 9, 2023

Reality hits hard with Brandon Johnson’s election

Brandon Johnson’s election as mayor of the City of Chicago has caused a great deal of consternation among conservatives, moderates, and businesspeople in Chicago, and for good reasons. An avowed "leftist" activist with no executive experience, Johnson is in the pocket of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).  

Only three years ago, at the height of the George Floyd riots, Johnson publicly declared his commitment to defunding the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in a televised interview discussing the upheaval in Chicago. Speaking to WGN, Johnson said defunding police was a “political goal” and gave a nod to widespread looting because businesses that were ransacked were fully insured. Just as concerning as his lack of executive experience, Johnson’s transition team includes no business or finance talent. In place of financial professionals, Johnson’s transition team is awash with union officials, progressive lawmakers, and community activists.

Johnson’s election drew national attention as most pundits were stunned that after four years of the chaos under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, voters had rejected the more moderate Democrat Paul Vallas for the uber progressive Johnson. Yet days after Johnson’s election as mayor, chaos erupted downtown as hundreds of youths descended on the Loop to wreak havoc. In the three-day period between April 13-15, hundreds of teens massed at 31st Street Beach or in the Loop to smash car windshields, beat people, loot stores, climb on CTA buses, and cause general chaos. Responding to this criminality and antisocial disorder, Johnson waved it off as kids “doing silly things.”

As strange as this may sound, Johnson’s victory brings the city closer to a turnaround. For those who may find their mouths agape, asking how Johnson’s election can be a benefit for Chicago, an explanation is in order. This publication, after all, is the Chicago Contrarian and a much longer and contrarian view is due. The election of Brandon Johnson is a necessary and painful step in the metamorphosis of the city.

A more realistic perspective is to start thinking about the City of Chicago as an alcoholic that has not hit bottom yet. The signature characteristic of an alcoholic is denial. “It’s not that bad.” “My spouse hasn’t left.” “I haven’t lost my job.” We’ve all seen the explanations that alcoholics routinely employ.

The alcoholic constantly denies and covers up his or her problems with alcohol with rationalizations and excuses.  Likewise, even before taking office, Johnson began denying reality. Johnson’s statements dismissing the rioting in the Loop with “sometimes they make silly decisions” was a simple refusal to acknowledge what we all saw with our own eyes. The mayor-elect’s assertion that “there’s more than enough for everybody,” is a flat-out denial of the fact that the city’s tax base is shrinking as productive people and businesses head for the exits.  With 40 percent of commercial space on the once Magnificent Mile vacant, record numbers of carjackings and other violent crimes surging, and companies like Citadel and Guggenheim taking their business and employees elsewhere, Johnson simply will not acknowledge the crisis he is inheriting. Further evidence the city is in deep trouble is found in the fact Chicago cannot even get a decent stable of interviewees for the plumb job of "top cop" and it has resorted to a search firm to identify candidates for the superintendent position.

Would Paul Vallas have made a difference? The truth is, not much. Vallas may have slowed Chicago’s decline down a bit. Vallas correctly zeroed in on crime as a central issue facing the city and offered some temporary fixes and remedies. However, Vallas would have had powerful forces arrayed against him: A State’s Attorney who refuses to prosecute and who ran off quality prosecutors, the Obama consent decree, a punitive police oversight agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, Judge Tim Evans, and various unrelenting community groups all aiming to erode public safety. The radical left has been remarkably successful at dismantling all layers of the criminal justice system in Chicago. A Vallas victory would have only mitigated one aspect of this shattered system.

Had Vallas defeated Johnson, it would have been a victory for false hope. Placing Vallas in office would also incur a cost: It would have perpetuated the myth that we could return to the city that we used to know and love. Under Brandon Johnson, the city will almost certainly hit bottom much faster. Denial will soon no longer be possible.

What is happening in Chicago is part of a larger set of forces. The model of the large urban area has been permanently altered and there is no going back. The golden era of urban life that existed in America post-WWII until now is unraveling quickly.

We now must face a fundamental question of the true purpose of a city. There are many fitting descriptions, but one way to define a metropolis is a large labor pool. Companies enjoy the proximity of abundant labor and workers have a variety of nearby employers that may use their services. In this respect, Chicago had many inherent historical advantages: A central location, a natural depot, a river, a large body of water, a diverse economy, a relatively educated workforce, and pockets of real industry (Elk Grove is the largest industrial park in the world).

As with all things in life, existing in a city involves a series of tradeoffs. Urbanites generally have an opportunity to make more money and enjoy more cultural experiences such as restaurants, neighborhood festivals, professional sports franchises, music, and the like. Nonetheless, the downside is more crime, higher taxes, congestion, pollution, and a modicum of corruption.  

But now the deal has changed, and that change is secular.

There are several factors that conspired to make this change but the two that accelerated the change were the COVID-19 epidemic and “criminal justice reform.” Together, these two phenomena worked in tandem to materially alter the implicit deal Chicago once lived under. First of all, remote work meant that you no longer had to commute into the city, and the technology enabled many employees to land jobs even without an in-person interview. With the end of the global pandemic, some employers are pushing to return employees back into the office, but it will never be at pre-COVID levels.

Second, the hard turn to “criminal justice reform” has ravaged areas of the city. The Loop, West Loop, and River North have turned into veritable "no-go" zones after rush hour. Crime once confined to certain areas has leeched out into the downtown business and shopping districts and enveloped recreational areas. Carjackings, armed robberies, and stabbings are now commonplace in areas formerly frequented by Loop workers and tourists. If these places that once saw droves of people frequent are now off limits, then people are effectively being denied the cultural advantages of the city.

To illustrate the conflict between employee safety and the need to have employees in the office, banking giant JP Morgan issued an edict to nudge its employees back into the office full time, yet a week later issued a warning to employees to vacate downtown Chicago due to rioting and looting. This schizophrenic approach implies that even large companies cannot quite seem to grasp the new reality.

With regard to taxes in Chicago, Brandon Johnson was elected on a platform to raise revenues. Included in his plans are an array of levies. Taxes on hotels, financial transactions, and an employee head tax, among others, are certain to be embraced by his allies in the City Council and the press. Should Johnson’s tax plans not raise enough revenue to fund his massive spending spree, Chicago will likely see a municipal income tax with the cooperation of Springfield. Johnson’s tax plans are also arriving at the worst possible time: Businesses are trying to recover from COVID lockdowns. At the same time, Johnson is lusting after new taxes, public safety is being reduced and the city’s school enrollment is shrinking and producing atrocious results. Pay more, get less means that another aspect of the deal has been changed.

To be sure, Chicago is not alone in experiencing this dynamic. San Francisco lost 10 percent of its population. New York, too, is also seeing substantial declines, as citizens react to the incentives placed in front of them. People are planning their exits and are doing so methodically.

The golden era of large American cities as a social organization is over, and the faster we recognize it, and get on with what is next, the better. Recall that in an earlier era, cities were terrible places to live. The 1906 novel “The Jungle” penned by Upton Sinclair depicted the lives of people in Chicago at the turn of the last century living in squalor, packed into tenement houses, living mean, day-to-day existences. Decades earlier, Victorian-era novelist and social critic Charles Dickens portrayed London as synonymous with poor housing, dirty smudge faced street urchins, crime, and dirt. Our cities seem to be reverting back to such a state and Chicago is leading the way down.

This all seems quite depressing, and it is if you are unnecessarily nostalgic for what Chicago used to be. However, if you are willing to see the broader social trends, Brandon Johnson is going to get you where you need to be more quickly, and it is happening even before Johnson takes up office space in City Hall. Walmart, the Chicago Bears, Boeing, and Guggenheim have already made their decisions. Considering this pattern, one might ask: How long before the White Sox head to Raleigh or Nashville or the next State Street retail giant shutters its doors?

It is an entirely new era in Chicago. The advantages of rural and small-town life are becoming more apparent, and that is probably a good thing. Small and rural communities all offer safe neighborhoods, less traffic, lower taxes (especially in the South), friendly neighbors, and accountable local government. Best of all, these are places where, unlike Chicago, you can actually vote incompetent or corrupt lawmakers out of office.  

Will Chicago comeback? Sadly, not anytime soon. But we should remember that Hiroshima and Dresden were virtually annihilated during WWII and have been able to rebuild themselves into magnificent cities in the intervening years, so it is not really over for Chicago. But it will likely be decades before that will be possible. Chicago has not quite hit bottom yet. When Chicago does eventually go through a renaissance, the Windy City will look completely different, likely much smaller than it is now.

Taking the long view, and framed differently, Brandon Johnson’s victory is a necessary step to that place sometime far down the road. Johnson will facilitate the unraveling much more quickly than Vallas would have. It is best to get on with it.

Related Posts