35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was elected in 2015 after campaigning on rhetoric that, in an era where Bernie Sanders is a household name, has become slightly more familiar to your average voter than it once was. He promised to curb the influence of the wealthy in government and put the interests of the working class front and center, while assuring voters that he wouldn’t be beholden to the Democratic-allied powers in City Hall. Touting his background as a community organizer and time spent working with progressive stalwart Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Ramirez-Rosa rode a wave of populist sentiment to become at 26 years old the youngest alderman elected in nearly 50 years.
The 35th Ward covers a portion of Logan Square as far southwest as Fullerton and Pulaski and as far north as Diversey and Milwaukee, with a diverse population to match. Where some would see an incompatible glut of competing interest groups, however, Ramirez-Rosa sees a unifying interest — a group of people who no matter their ethnicity, income or education are looking for a more level playing field between the city’s public schools and its penthouses.
The alderman spent time with LoganSquarist at the end of a busy week in City Council. The group had just cast their votes on employment ethics rules, gun range placement and a municipal ID program that Ramirez-Rosa has long championed. Edited excerpts follow.
LoganSquarist: When you were elected, you said you’d fight for people in the neighborhood, as opposed to the interests of developers. How do you plan to combat gentrification?
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa: I have a funny anecdote about that. I have a friend that works for an architecture firm downtown, and in one specific [online architecture] forum there were a number of developers complaining that I was actually slowing gentrification down. They said, “what a fool, he thinks he can stop gentrification, but he’s actually not stopping it, he’s just slowing it down.”
Well, the reality is, my assessment of the tools that I have at my disposal — the levers I can pull unilaterally — tell me that I can’t stop gentrification in one community. But what I can do is that I can slow it down and make sure we’re doing things to maintain long-term residents in our community.
Ultimately, we live in a free market society, and market forces are powerful and have the ability to displace people. What I’m doing as alderman in the 35th Ward is making sure that the levers that I have to pull, I’m pulling in the best interest of a diverse Logan Square, and that means diverse both racially and economically.
I have many allies in the community in that fight — Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Logan Square Preservation, We Are Somos Logan Square, these are all groups that are part of my community-driven zoning and development process, and through working with them we’ve been able to ensure that developers do not have a blank check to do whatever they want to do in our community.
Ultimately, developers will look at their bottom line. They’ll look at how they can maximize profit, and they’re not going to think about how they can maintain a diverse Logan Square, or how they can maintain a community that so many people love. So through our community-driven zoning and development process, which ensures that there’s transparency and accountability and participation in the community in zoning decisions, we’ve been able to ensure that the community has a voice in our zoning process. The community has used that voice to ensure that gentrification is not accelerating in the portion of Logan Square that I represent and that we’re taking steps to maintain Logan Square as it is, which is an economically and racially diverse neighborhood.
LS: What is it about Logan Square, and the 35th Ward in general, that makes it so amenable to progressive politics?
CR: One, we have the long-term residents that are overwhelmingly working-class, and they understand the inherent inequality in our society because they’re overworked, they’re underpaid, the rent is too high, and at the end of the month they have to make hard decisions about whether or not they’re gonna buy the medicine they need, put food on the table or pay their bills.
At the same time, we have a growing number of younger residents who also understand the inherent inequality in our society, folks who graduated college and recognize that the economy that their parents entered into when they graduated 30 or 40 years ago is no longer there. I think that these groups, while on their face different — you talk about the young white hipster and the older Latino resident … when you actually look at their material conditions, when you actually look at the fact that many folks who are white in Logan Square are struggling to pay their rent … when you look at the fact that many young college graduates are living paycheck to paycheck and are unable to afford servicing the debt that they’ve acquired as a result of going to college on their hospitality or service industry jobs, we begin to see that in many ways everyone in Logan Square that is working or middle class is facing the same challenges.
Once we’re able to understand that our struggle is very much the same, that allows us to come together around a shared political vision and political program, and that is why I think my message of checking the power of big corporations, of fighting for working- and middle-class families, and the policies that are attached to that message are so popular in Logan Square, because it speaks to both the conditions that working-class Latino families are facing and the same conditions that many of the newer white residents in Logan Square are facing as well.
LS: How can Logan Square residents get involved in progressive causes?
CR: Folks should look to elected officials that are championing their values and championing the policies that they believe strongly in. Once they’ve done their research, they should reach out to those individuals and ask for opportunities to get involved.
Myself and the members of United Neighbors of the 35th Ward are out knocking doors nearly every single weekend because we believe in the capacity of people to govern themselves. You’ll be surprised at the number of people who are just shocked and floored when a politician or a community member knocks their door and asks what they want to see happen in their community or what they’d want to change about their community, because most folks in the city of Chicago have never experienced that before.
The best way to get involved, then, is through the many community groups that are fighting the good fight around affordable housing, whether it’s Somos Logan Square or Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and in the ward office we have efforts going on to push forward a progressive agenda, including our Community Defense Committee to protect our neighbors from deportation. There are a wealth of opportunities in the 35th Ward and in Logan Square for folks that are looking to push forward a progressive agenda. I think folks should research, poke around on the internet, ask around, ask their neighbors, attend meetings and then figure out where they want to spend their time.
LS: How will the recently approved municipal ID program help people in the neighborhood who might be afraid to cooperate with non-city authorities?
CR: The municipal ID has been a long time coming. We’ve been fighting — and when I say “we” I mean a broader community of immigrant rights activists across the country — for comprehensive immigration reform for some time. The analysis is clear that at this moment in time we’re not going to win comprehensive immigration reform. So the question, then, is what can we do to integrate immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, into the fabric of our society, and to provide them with the support that they need to live dignified lives?
Unfortunately, many undocumented immigrants are unable to acquire a government-issued ID. If you’re a Mexican immigrant, you can go down to the consulate on Ashland and acquire a consular ID card, but if you come from a country that doesn’t have a consulate in Chicago, or might not have a consulate at all within 1,000 miles of here, it becomes difficult, particularly if you’re undocumented, to get an ID card.
The 35th Ward is home to immigrants from across the globe. We have a sizeable Filipino, Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, Vietnamese, Korean population, and the municipal ID will give that community the opportunity to acquire a government-issued ID card, which will then allow them to access services and the benefits which they qualify for and deserve. But on top of that, it’s not just going to assist undocumented immigrants — it’s going to assist all vulnerable Chicagoans who have struggled to get an ID card, whether it be a trans individual who has not been able to get an ID card that represents their gender identity, or whether it be a homeless individual who hasn’t been able to put together the documentation required to get a state ID.
So there’s going to be many individuals who will benefit from a municipal ID, and I will be getting a municipal ID. I have a state ID, but I’m going to be getting a municipal ID because at the end of the day, I think it’s a great way to also demonstrate your civic pride and to show that you are actually a resident of the greatest city in the world.
LS: When you run for re-election in 2019, what do you want Logan Square and the ward at large to look like? What changes do you want to see?
CR: In the portion of Logan Square that I represent, we’ve done as much as we can to maintain a racially and economically diverse community because we know that that is the healthiest community — both from our lived experiences and from the data — that when we have a racially and economically diverse community, that is a successful community, and I want to make sure that I am doing everything that I can to maintain the beauty that is Logan Square.