Honor Jane Byrne on her 90th birthday by taking the train

Naming a congested highway interchange after Chicago’s first female mayor is a dubious tribute.

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The Jane Byrne Interchange — a full city block of highway congestion in the heart of the city.

The Jane Byrne Interchange — a full city block of highway congestion in the heart of the city. Will it always be there?

Provided/Illinois Department of Transportation

All honors have teeth. Reach out to accept a plaudit, and it bites you. That’s my experience, anyway. The boring dinner. The stumble to the podium. The plaque.

But an infamous highway interchange? That has to be a league of dubious tribute all its own.

I can’t be the only one who, unfortunate enough to be trapped in the tangle once called “The Spaghetti Bowl,” thinks that deciding to name the crawling knot of sclerotic cars upon concrete after Jane Byrne was some kind of grim joke. The mayoral ghost of Richie Daley, exacting his revenge.

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Even though it’s kind of my fault.

It was nine years ago that I wrote an open letter to Byrne on what I thought was her 80th birthday. I didn’t realize she secretly shaved a year off her age, a reminder that she faced the strong headwind of a society that likes its women young, pretty and not in positions of power.

That really hasn’t changed much. Donald Trump loved to say that the only reason Hillary Clinton was able to run against him in 2016 was because she was a woman, when the truth is 180 degrees opposite. The only reason a highly qualified, smart and savvy former secretary of state nevertheless lost to the most unfit individual to ever run for the presidency is because she is a woman. A mediocre man would have whupped him, as Joe Biden illustrated.

The column got the wheels turning to eventually extend small public honors: a tiny park, a knot of congestion. She died in 2014, but her 90th birthday would have been Wednesday, May 24, and reason to consider her anew. The Byrne legacy lives on, and not just in the looping connections between I-90, I-94, I-290 and Ida B. Wells Drive.

Wells Drive. Another odd distinction. Only in Chicago could the powers-that-be create a situation where there would be a corner of Wells and Wells. Fitting in a city where a major thoroughfare, Wacker Drive, goes north, south, east and west.

Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne (center-left) waits for the start of the Jae announcement that the former Circle interchange will be named after her.

Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne (center-left) waits for the start of the Jae announcement that the former Circle interchange will be named after her.

Sun-Times Media

At least the Byrne interchange, like the mayor, carries a certain brash notoriety. The Economist’s Midwest correspondent, Daniel Knowles, begins his remarkable new book, “Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It” with this lyrical description:

“Around three miles away from where I live in Chicago, southeast from my apartment in Wicker Park, is the most congested stretch of road in the entire United States. Just west of Union Station, once one of the busiest railway stations in the entire world, is the intersection between I-90 and I-290, otherwise known as the Kennedy and Eisenhower Expressways. Named the Jane Byrne Interchange, this junction occupies an entire city block. .... The speed limits posted show that drivers are allowed to go 55 miles per hour. But except occasionally late at night, almost none do. They move along at 30 mph or less, and often sit almost completely still, bumper-to-bumper, hooting at each other.”

Reading Knowles’ eloquent argument for breaking free from our dependence on cars, you may wonder how long the interchange honoring Byrne will exist. A reminder that all honors are temporary. Every statue that goes up can someday come down.

The irony — well, one of the ironies — is that among Byrne’s greatest legacies is getting Taste of Chicago going, bringing back farmers markets, nudging Chicago toward a pedestrian future that Knowles advocates for vigorously in his book and which might someday await us. If people can stop commuting downtown, they can stop clogging the streets with cars. One solution to getting them back downtown would be to make their trips easier.

Part of the Jane Byrne Interchange, seen from the rooftop of the National Hellenic Museum, on the December day last when the official ribbon-cutting was held.

Part of the Jane Byrne Interchange, seen from the rooftop of the National Hellenic Museum, on the December day last when the official ribbon-cutting was held to mark the project’s completion.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“Where did you park?” were the first words out of a buddy’s mouth when I met him at Coq d’Or in the Drake Hotel late Monday afternoon.

“I took the train,” I replied.

“Good for you!” he enthused, as if I had done something extraordinary — cartwheeled downtown, perhaps.

The second legacy — what I call “The Jane Byrne Lesson” — is particularly relevant as another one-term outsider mayor, Lori Lightfoot — one whose rebarbative, self-pitying nature makes Byrne seem like Holly Golightly — slinks off into the shadows. Replaced by another outsider and ... possibly ... one-term pony. It took Byrne six weeks from the day she was sworn in to when her staunchest supporters started declaring her a sellout and a sham. This is the middle of the second week of Brandon Johnson’s first term. Which means, on the Byrne scale, he has four weeks of honeymoon left.

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