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Why Chicago’s 1st female mayor moved into the city’s most notorious public housing project

SNEED: As Jane Byrne’s former press secretary, I was with someone she turned to for advice on a quick fix to Cabrini-Green’s serious crime problem.

Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, share breakfast at the Cabrini-Green housing project. They moved in for four weeks to quell a gang riot. Welcome To The Hood (photo by Kevin Horan April 3, 1981)
Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, share breakfast at the Cabrini-Green housing project. on April 3, 1981.
Kevin Horan/Sun-Times files

In the room where it happened.

I was there.

Let’s back up.

A new play titled: “Her Honor Jane Byrne” opened this weekend at the Lookingglass Theatre.

Its focus centers around the late Mayor Jane Byrne’s shocking decision in 1981 to move with her husband, Jay McMullen, into the Cabrini-Green public housing projects.

The play has been described by the author, J. Nicole Brooks, as a dramatic work of historic, imaginative fiction based on hard research — due in part to not exactly being sure why Byrne made such a decision.

“It’s about what happens when you try to fix something based on a localized response rather than dealing with a systemic problem,” said Brooks.

As Byrne’s former press secretary who had returned to journalism a year before she moved into Cabrini’s apartment 416, I just happened to be with one person she called seeking advice on fixing Cabrini-Green’s serious crime problem.

  • Backstory: To the best of my recollection, an angry and frustrated Byrne had just witnessed the way police were handling a woman assaulted in Cabrini-Green on a late-night drive through the projects with her husband and her bodyguards in March 1981.
  • Backshot: The person she called was savvy enough to know there was no quick fix and no specific solution to end the crime, but noted: “Wherever the mayor goes, goods and services follow.” Her moving into Cabrini-Green was discussed.

Byrne’s decision to do so was not only a shocker, it was unexpected.

Byrne, who was known for late-night decisions and hallway press conferences, startled everyone. Her husband, a former Sun-Times real estate writer, knew how to make headlines and this was a helluva one. Byrne’s decision became the birth of her version of a housing project called “Cabrini O Green” with sports incentives to keep kids off the street, like baseball diamonds and basketball courts.

Children run along the Cabrini-Green campus six months after Mayor Jane Byrne briefly moved in there in 1981 to bring attention to Cabrini’s troubles.
Sun-Times/John H. White.

Goods and services did roll in, but “Jane” and “Jay” didn’t stay very long, and the blight eventually returned. The city’s 50th mayor and first female in the post lost re-election in April 1983.

Mayor Byrne’s daughter Kathy saw the play and declared it “terrific,” saying: “They even copied my mother’s clothes.”

Can’t wait to see the play. Can’t wait to see the playwright’s take.

Proof once again life is usually stranger than fiction.

Sneedlings . . .

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