Five things you probably don't know, or forgot, about Jane Byrne

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Chicago will honor the legacy of Jane Byrne, its only female mayor, who served from 1979 to 1983. On Wednesdsay, the City Counci approved renaming the plaza on which the Old Water Tower sits will be renamed Jane M. Byrne Plaza.

How much do you know about Jane Byrne?

Here are five things you probably don’t know (or forgot):

1. Mayor of Chicago is the first, last and only elected office she ever held. She unsuccessfully for mayor in 1987 and 1991 and for circuit court clerk in 1988.

Sun-Times file photo2. Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, moved into the Cabrini-Green housing project in 1981 for four weeks to force in a large police presence and quell a gang riot.

She also was a supporter of getting rid of buildings such as Cabrini-Green altogether.

From an interview with James A. DeVinney from Washington University:

“My goal would have been to take a lot of the abandoned housing, ah, and I, I discussed this with ah, the President, President Reagan at a meeting of U.S. conference of mayor’s small group. And we all felt the same,” Byrne said. “That they’re a, they’re a disservice to the poor. That you would put so much money into trying to keep them up. Some of them have been up for forty years. And if you could take that money and put it into rehabbing three flats, two flats, single family you know, they would — children would not have — the mothers wouldn’t be fifteen floors away from a kid on the street with a gang banger. And they’re s–laying all over the city. There’s abandoned housing all over. Structurally sound. And I would like to — -If I had stayed, I can guarantee that’s what I would have done.”

3. Her 1979 campaign wasn’t flush with cash. Scott Jacobs, a former Sun-Times reporter, shot her campaign commercials, and he once told the Chicago Reader about the state of her finances.

“She had about $5,000 in her campaign chest,” Jacobs said. “They put a mortgage on their house for $75,000 which paid the media buy.”

For a quick reference, that $80,000 then would be around $262,000 in today’s dollars. Last week, a Rahm Emanuel Super PAC raked in $350,000 in one day.

4. It was under her watch that an ordinance banning new handguns was passed by the City Council in the wake of assassination attempts on former President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and the death of two police officers.

Years later, critics, such as then-Ald. Robert Shaw (9th), said the ban was as much a “charade” as Prohibition.

“Guns are just like apple pie in America and the citizens are not going to get rid of their guns, whether we ban them or not,” Shaw said then. “It’s asinine to tell citizens they should be easy prey for these burglars, home invaders and drug dealers. If a burglar comes in my house — hell, I have to jump out the window if he’s got a gun and I don’t have one.”

But it did have an impact. In 1989, police said the average number of handgun murders in Chicago has dropped by 103 a year in the five years since the gun control ordinance took effect.

5. When John Belushi, with sweat beading on his forehead, approached her about filming “The Blues Brothers” in Chicago, Byrne made him sweat it out. Literally.

“And so he kept talking,” Byrne recalled in a 2010 Chicago Tribune interview. “Finally, I just said, ‘Fine.’ But he kept going. So again I said, ‘Look, I said fine.’ He said, ‘Wait. We also want to drive a car through the lobby of Daley Plaza. Right though the window.’ I remember what was in my mind as he said it. I had the whole 11th Ward against me anyway, and most of Daley’s people against me. They owned this city for years, so when Belushi asked me to drive a car through Daley Plaza, the only thing I could say was, ‘Be my guest!’ He said, ‘We’ll have it like new by the morning.’ I said, ‘Look, I told you yes.’ And that’s how they got my blessing.”

And if you’re feeling a bit nostalgic, here’s Byrne’s inauguration speech, courtesy of the Chicago Public Library:

This speech is recorded as it first appeared in print. Archaic spelling and misspellings in the original document have not been corrected.

As I stand here before you tonight I am reminded of the simple words with which the late Mayor Richard Daley began his inaugural addresses. He would say that he was filled with “mingled feelings of humility and pride and with a sense of confidence to meet the challenges that lie ahead.” That phrase best describes my own feelings at this moment. I love Chicago. It is where I have lived my entire life and made some measures of contribution through public service to make it a better place in which to live.

But always I was a private citizen whose activities in government or political party were appointive. Tonight—by taking this solemn oath—I am no longer a private citizen but the Mayor of the City of Chicago. I accept that responsibility and ask only that I be judged by my performance as its chief executive.

I can tell you that getting here wasn’t easy.

But it happened because growing numbers of my fellow Chicagoans believed there should be a change in the city’s direction and priorities. They were ready to launch a new era for Chicago… with new faces and new politics. And they turned out in record numbers on election day to give this administration a clear mandate to bring about those changes.

I am a Democrat. I have been one all of my life. But I recognize that I was elected not only by the members of my own party, but the large numbers of independents and republicans as well. I pledge tonight to be Mayor for all of the people of this city—for one Chicago.

The people of Chicago are a proud people—and for good reason. When there were fears about the future of this nation’s older cities… when a few of the cities teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, all eyes were focused on Chicago for contrast. This was the city run efficiently. It was the city in good financial condition. It was the city… if I may repeat the cliche… Chicago was the city that works.

And the facts demonstrate that, by comparison to other large cities, we have been successful. Chicago kept industry, attracted new business, became the center for convention trade and transportation. Our universities and museums are respected around the country. The Chicago Symphony is considered the greatest orchestra in the world. We have much to build on.

The credit for much of this rightly belongs to the late Mayor Daley who forged a coalition of business and labor that kept Chicago always moving ahead. I pledge tonight to continue that tradition. There will be some changes, for sure. But I am committed to keeping this city a strong and viable center for commerce and industry, for continuing to make it a place of opportunity for its citizens.

In the days and months I spent walking through the various communities of this city, I found that Chicago did not work for everyone, however. I talked with people who felt that their neighborhoods had been betrayed, forgotten. I heard from others who expressed doubts about the city’s future. And in their silence, I had only to walk their streets to see the boarded-up buildings, burned-out homes, and dying commercial areas. I listened and I knew the people were hearing a different drummer.

Chicago’s neighborhoods have always been this city’s greatest strength. If those communities are left to decay, this city will decay. We cannot, we will not, let this happen.

Be assured that I did not become the Mayor of Chicago to preside over its decline. I am here before you tonight to dedicate this administration to bringing a new renaissance of neighborhood life and community spirit, a renewal of confidence in the future of our city and a revival of opportunity for all Chicago.

None of us should be so naive as to believe that this will be an easy task, or that it can be accomplished in a year, or even a single term of office. We saw hundreds of programs to redevelop the central city, the neighborhoods, in the past. They came from the administrations of President Kennedy and Johnson and had some measures of success and failure.

If we are to succeed, we must recognize that the community redevelopment is not solely the rehabilitation of housing, or putting a mall in the business strips.

If we are to succeed with so ambitious an undertaking, our programs must be coordinated to:

  • Improve the school system so that children get good educations and our schools will actually lure young families to live here;
  • Provide the best and most economical basic services of sanitation, health care, transportation and law enforcement;
  • Reform the system of taxation to make it a fair one; and
  • Improve the climate for business and industry so that jobs and opportunity will be available.
  • We must make Chicago a city free from fear.

A moment ago, I cautioned that it will take time to achieve these goals. So important are they, however, there should be no delay in getting to work on them. If for no other reason than the energy crisis now facing this country, the federal government should be eager to become partners with us in rebuilding our city. The nation can no longer afford to continue policies that hasten the flight of persons to the distant suburbs. We will intensify our efforts to utilize the many federal programs available to help the cities.

We also will need the help of the general assembly and the cooperation of the governor, and I have already taken preliminary steps to obtain this assistance.

Most importantly, you who have been elected to the City Council, and I as the Mayor, must work together on the task of carrying out the mandate given us by our fellow citizens. My administration will be bringing our programs and proposed appointments before you for consideration.

For my part, I plan to work out a fair and adequate redistribution of city services to all city neighborhoods. Our department representative to those areas will be made responsible and held accountable.

City employees will be hired and promoted because of their abilities—without outside interference. And no longer will some of them have to consider themselves as second class citizens—when I said I supported collective bargaining it was not just an empty campaign promise.

The cooperation of government at its different levels is important and can only be achieved as long as the people of Chicago are directly involved in our efforts and supportive of our goals.

I begin my administration tonight with an open house in the mayor’s office. It is planned to allow everyone the opportunity of visiting the office of the mayor. But it is also a symbolic event for the open kind of government I plan to bring to this city.

As I visited the various neighborhoods in the campaign, I learned fast that it’s a mistake to think that all of the wisdom and possible solutions to our problems are available only in this building. I listened to suggestions from residents for ways of solving many problems. In the housing projects, people talked of ways to reduce crime, relieve overcrowding, and they were good ideas that we plan to study, and possibly implement.

The people must know that from this day on, we want their opinions. We want to hear their complaints and problems. We will give fair consideration to their demands and proposals. We want them to become real partners in the business of government.

The open house at City Hall must not be allowed to end tonight. The doors must be kept open. I will keep them open.

But as important as the job to be done by government in the neighborhoods, the people must also be involved.

If all of us would require the same level of performance from ourselves as we expect from government, this city will forever be the city that works.

In the past several months, my eyes were not only focused on abandoned buildings and boarded-up businesses. As I walked the city streets, there was also the blight caused by people. People who don’t care… children tossing litter onto our streets and yards… the defacement of buildings.

—All signs that civic pride in many neighborhoods is at a low ebb.

We must care. We must all care. And while I am working, while the governments is working, so must the people also work.

Governments everywhere—at the national, state and city levels—are in the throes of the revolution of rising expectations. The people ask much, often more than any government can give. We must resist the temptation to promise solutions to all problems. But we will set high goals and strive to achieve them. Reach for the stars… and if we fall short… look how high up we’ll be anyway.

Grave problems confront us. The challenges they present are of sobering magnitude. They cry out for solution. So, with the help of God, let us begin.

Contributing: Neil Steinberg

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