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

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Chris Jones

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

March 7.

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.

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