When A Mayor Moved To The Cabrini-Green Projects

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Chicago's Circle Interchange highway loop was renamed after Jane Byrne this week, the city's first and only female mayor. Scott Simon talks with Kathy Byrne about her mother's legacy.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Yesterday, the city of Chicago renamed the Circle Interchange, a huge loop of highways downtown, after Jane Byrne. She was mayor of Chicago from 1979 to 1983, the first woman to be elected mayor of a major city in the United States. She upset the remnants of the Daley Machine to win.

Four years later, Mayor Byrne failed to get reelected. She was often criticized for cronyism and incompetence. But in the spring of 1981, a wave of shootings and homicides in the old Cabrini-Green Housing Project on the near North Side caught her attention.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Channel 2 News has learned that Mayor Byrne is putting Wood Street District Commander Joe McCarthy in charge of the Cabrini-Green police detail. Byrne reportedly has lost confidence in the ability...

SIMON: And they didn't just appoint a new police commander, Mayor Byrne moved into an apartment in Cabrini-Green. Some people derided the move as a political gimmick, but it brought civic attention, a greater police presence, and other city services to Cabrini-Green. We spoke with Mayor Byrne's daughter, Kathy Byrne, this week about what prompted her mother's decision to move in.

KATHY BYRNE: One day before my mom went to her office she was, you know, sitting having some coffee and putting on her makeup and listening to the news radio. And they said, you know, news of the day, news of the day. And then at the end they said, and another shooting at Cabrini-Green last night. Eighteen-year-old was shot to death and no suspects have been arrested. And now on to the Cubs. And she thought, you know, that's terrible. Someone should do something about that. And then she thought, wait. I am the mayor. I have to do something about this. So, you know, she finished her coffee, finished putting on her makeup. And when she went to get in the car, she told the bodyguard we're not going to City Hall. Just drive over to Cabrini and do not get on the radio. I don't want them to know I'm coming.

You know, there was nothing there. There were no police. And, you know, she said there was a shooting last night but no one is looking for the shooter. No one is patrolling. No one's talking to people. And she, you know, said this is going to stop. I can't have this in my city. You know, this is eight blocks from my house and it's a different world. And I think as she said those words, it sort of dawned on her she better get into that world and see what was really happening. And she talked it over with my stepfather and they announced the next day they were going to make the move into Cabrini.

SIMON: What was it like for her to live there? What did it do?

BYRNE: When you're the mayor of Chicago, where you go, every support organization in the city goes with you. You know, it wasn't just the police. It was also - streets and san was there and they were cleaning up alleys and hauling away dumpsters. And just all of the drop that had just been left there for years - all of those things. And working with the courts, and they put in a special night court in Cabrini so that, you know, people could be processed right away in the event of violent crimes. It wasn't something that you could wait 'til the next police shift to go get them because gee, if we got them now, there wouldn't be any place to put them. You know, she said enough of those excuses. You know, we're going to do this now. And when you're the mayor, you know, people - you say jump, people say how high?

SIMON: Mayor Byrne lived in Cabrini-Green for a little more than 20 days. How do you reply to the criticism then and now that it was just a gimmick, it was just a stunt?

BYRNE: Well, it wasn't. And if it were, it was a hell of a stunt because nobody else had the guts to do it. But - I mean, it was not. It wasn't as if she walked out of there and never went back. She was constantly going back. She was constantly making sure that the things that she had started or insisted upon had been maintained. And I don't believe there was another murder there for the rest of her administration.

SIMON: May I ask how is mayor Byrne doing?

BYRNE: Her health is stable right now. She had a pretty severe stroke last year. She's, you know, been rehabbing and doing better and better. So, you know, it's day by day. She's loving all of the recent publicity, so, you know, that's given her a lot of energy.

SIMON: Kathy Byrne, daughter of former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne. Thanks so much.

BYRNE: Thank you for having me. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In our interview with the daughter of former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne, we say that Byrne was the first female mayor of a major city. That is incorrect. Bertha Landes was the mayor of Seattle during the 1920s.]

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Correction Aug. 30, 2014

In our interview with the daughter of former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, we say that Byrne was the first female mayor of a major city. That is incorrect. Bertha Landes was the mayor of Seattle during the 1920s.

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