Four years ago, when I spent much of Election Day trekking around neighborhoods on the south and southeast sides of the city, the excitement was palpable: people were buzzing about Barack Obama making history on the bus, outside the corner store, at the senior citizens' home, at the crosswalk even after the light turned green.
I figured that when I went back to some of the same neighborhoods in Obama's backyard today, the euphoria would be long gone—and I was right. But in its place was something else: a sense of commitment, a willingness to go to work and get the job done by giving the president the second term his supporters think he needs.
People were getting out to vote, with no hesitation about who they were voting for.
"I have voted here for 34 years, and not even the last presidential election had this much constant traffic," said Harlette Smith Washington, a volunteer election judge in the Trumbull Park field house, at 103rd and Oglesby. It was midday and almost every one of the dozen voting booths was in use, with several other people waiting patiently.
"We've seen every age group, from first-time voters to people like me who are old as dirt," Washington said. In the 1960s she'd marched for voting rights in the South, and she was offended that a number of states had moved to tighten voting access before this election. "If I could I would go to Florida and be a one-person picket line," she declared, waving her cane.
A few miles west, Orlando C. had already run out of the campaign literature he'd been hired to give voters outside a polling place at 105th and Michigan in Roseland. "I don't tell them who to vote for," he said, his glasses misting in the rain, graying braids poking out from under his ball cap. "I don't step on nobody's preference."
But he said the trend was clear: "Obama," he said. "It's like any other president—you can't do anything because you have to do what Congress wants. You need another four years to do what you want. Plus, he's definitely better than George Bush."
Not to mention Mitt Romney—literally.
Orlando didn't say this because he's had an easy time the last four years. He lost his truck-driving license after accumulating speeding tickets and had to do temp work, including a stint working in a warehouse at a Joliet Walmart where full-time workers had walked off the job. That's why he's nervous about putting his full name in print.
"I support what the workers there were trying to do, but I needed something in my pocket too."
Not surprisingly, that was a common theme. Isabel Galvin and Luisa Dias-Leal were grateful to be working on Election Day—helping customers looking for winter boots at the Payless shoe store on Commercial Avenue in South Chicago.
Galvin said she wasn't planning to vote. As a 19-year-old single mother, she had been too busy trying to keep up with her daughter and her bills to pay the election much attention. "It's hard," she said. "I know it's bad but I don't know enough to vote."
There are empty storefronts in the business district on Commercial that weren't there in 2008, and foreclosures dot the surrounding residential areas. "There's a lot of people here, they need jobs," Dias-Leal said. But she believes it's getting better: Her store and her company are hiring and promoting people again.
She said she would be stopping at her polling station on the way home so she could vote for the president. "A lot of people say he didn't do a lot, but he did," she said. "We were really down four years ago."
Will people be saying anything similar outside Chicago? I'm guessing enough will.