History of Byrne’s stunt ‘depends on whom you ask’
Chicago mayor’s 1981 move into Cabrini-Green is the subject of a new play at Lookingglass
In 1979, a long shot and political novice named Jane Byrne became mayor of Chicago. She beat out Mayor Michael Bilandic, who famously blamed his loss on his administration’s failure to adequately clear streets after a horrific January blizzard had dumped more than 30 inches of snow over a couple of weeks, snarling streets and knocking out the city’s transportation infrastructure. From that point on, Chicago’s revenge on Bilandic, whose comically self-pitying rhetoric at the time exceeded even the contemporary riffs of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, would become a cautionary tale for all future politicians.
But for Byrne, who had the columnist Mike Royko’s wind in her sails, Bilandic’s foul-up was an opening, and a chance to jab her finger in the eye of Richard J. Daley’s notoriously patriarchal Democratic machine.
Byrne, though, quickly came to see that being the first female mayor in the history of Chicago meant many more headaches than the ones that fall from the sky.
Many of her early problems (the Tribune called it “government by revolving door”) emanated from the necessity of wrestling with the good old aldermanic boys (she called them
“a cabal of evil men”), her experience in Daley’s cabinet notwithstanding. Byrne quickly figured out that those Daley loyalists were never going to love her. Perhaps that was why she agreed to let Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi crash the “Bluesmobile” through the windows of the Daley Center in “Blues Brothers,” a stunt for which the old man never would have granted permission. And she faced a barrage of sexism and headlines like “Attila the Hen” and “Calamity Jane.”
“At various times,” reported the Tribune’s Ellen Warren in a cleareyed 2004 assessment of Byrne’s brief reign in her one and only elected political office, “accounts called her petty, vindictive, erratic, arrogant and menopausal.”
By 1983, Byrne had lost to Mayor Harold Washington. And politicians, even pioneers like Byrne, fade from memory, even those whose names come to adorn freeway interchanges. But if there is one thing, one stunt, that still is remembered from the Byrne administration, it is this one, and it is the subject of a new play by J. Nicole Brooks at the Lookingglass Theatre, opening
In the spring of 1981, with Chicago’s most notorious public-housing project reeling from 10 murders in three months, Byrne announced her intent to move into an apartment in CabriniGreen. Then as now — the buildings are down but Jordan Peele’s remake of the horror film “Candyman” is about to hit theaters — that housing project always has loomed large in the city’s complex imagination. Despite the bucolic moniker, Cabrini-Green has functioned as a symbol of its problems and a locus of its nightmares, even as it served as home to thousands of Chicagoans, many of whom channeled a tough childhood into notable citizenry.
Did Byrne really move in? That would depend how you define the term, and, notes Brooks, the answer also depends “on whom you ask.”
But Montgomery Ward did donate furniture and Byrne, along with her husband and political adviser Jay McMullen, did head out in her limousine from a dinner at the Conrad Hilton hotel around 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31, to take up residence in Apartment 416, a journey to a different world that was actually only about eight blocks from Byrne’s own Gold Coast home. She was joined by her security detail (staying in separate apartments on either side of the mayor) and the decision — or, if you prefer, the stunt — meant that some actual residents had to be displaced. “She got in here so fast it hurt,” one resident told a reporter.
Byrne took the stairs; the elevators at Cabrini-Green rarely worked anyway.
The following morning, the mayor told reporters she had spent “a lovely night.” And for that Friday, a “welcome neighbor” coffee morning was organized for residents.
As various retellings by Byrne and her daughter over the year have emphasized, the decision was impulsive and driven by Byrne’s sense that kids there were dying, the city was doing nothing and the media did not care. “Eighteen-year-old was shot to death and no suspects have been arrested. And now on to the Cubs,” Kathy Byrne told Scott Simon of National
Public Radio in 2014. “And she thought, you know, that’s terrible. Someone should do something about that.”
Within 30 minutes of Byrne’s arrival, the Tribune reported, police had arrested seven gang members and seized 11 guns, saying that a raid was being planned by the gang known as the Black Disciples on the very building Byrne was occupying, allegedly the territory of a rival gang, the Cobra Stones.
On the night in question, the mayor’s press spokeswoman told the Tribune the mayor had no formal plans for her stay, but was going to “play it by ear.”
At the time, Byrne’s action was widely heralded as a success, a way to force the hand of a city still invested in clout by bringing all the mayoral heat to Cabrini-Green. With City Hall watching and jobs widely assumed to be on the line, services were improved at the project, at least in the short term. National press heralded Byrne’s move, and residents were quoted in the Los Angeles Times as being widely appreciative of this morale booster. “All agree,” read a headline in this newspaper, “Life is now better at Cabrini-Green.”
Of course, Byrne was a visitor, an outsider of a different race to most of the residents. Her stay was temporary. And, it could be argued, the resources that were brought to bear were merely temporary.
“Storming a castle without a plan is usually a bad idea,” says Brooks, who grew up in North Lawndale and Washington Park neighborhoods and remembers watching TV anchorman Walter Jacobson talk about Byrne on the news. “She was spoken on in Chicago in the same vein, and using the same kinds of language, as sports or organized crime. She was very much in my household. But when anybody tries to attack a systemic problem with a local response, they are not really attacking the problem.”
Thus “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” Brooks says, is a work of imaginative fiction, inspired by this history but also focusing on public housing activists and residents, as did the late PJ Paparelli’s seminal “The Project(s),” a 2015 oral history of public housing in Chicago and its residents.
About a week after her move, the Associated Press reported, Byrne looked out of her window at Cabrini Green, saw a boy “bouncing a basketball” and declared it time to ease out of her move. At the end of that week, the news service said, Byrne would start “splitting her time” between Apartment 416 and her actual home. She said she would return, “occasionally.”
Byrne did not want to announce when she was leaving, arguing that the threat of her presence would reduce violence. But by April 21, she was making a declaration of victory, as all politicians like to end their projects.
“Crime,” said the mayor, who died in 2014, “is almost zilch.”
Mayor Jane Byrne shakes hands with children outside a Cabrini-Green building in April 1981, where she earlier waved to the crowd from the window of her fourth-floor apartment.