So, why did it take so long for it to be Mayor Jane Byrne's turn?

It took decades for Chicago to officially honor its first and only female mayor. We consider whether politics got too personal.

July 24, 2014

(Wikipedia)
Jane Byrne riding in the 1985 Gay Pride parade in Chicago.

Shortly before Chicago's City Council officially honored former Mayor Jane Byrne by naming the Water Tower Plaza after her, her name had been thrown about quite a bit. The political momentum required for July's up-or-down vote, as well as the effusive praise heaped on Byrne, grew exponentially in the previous months. But that came after decades-worth of radio silence concerning her, the city's first and only female mayor.

Perhaps that silence — which began almost as soon as Byrne left office in 1983 — contributed to lifelong Chicagoan Shana Jackson stepping forward with our Curious City question. Shana said before the recent hullabaloo over the former mayor, she had never even heard Jane Byrne's name. That is, until her father gave her a quick quiz one day.

“My parents are former teachers, and so my dad is always quizzing me about things,” she said. “Out of the blue, he asked me about the first woman mayor of Chicago. And I said, ‘What woman mayor of Chicago?’”

Shana said her father, and later her Facebook friends, told her she should be ashamed that she didn’t know about Jane Byrne. So then she hit the Internet.

There’s a lot to be learned about Jane Byrne: There’s her landslide victory in 1979 over incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic (and thus the so-called Democratic machine) in an election held shortly after his administration botched handling a massive blizzard.

Byrne served only one term, but many credit her as the prime mover behind some of the most recognizably “Chicago” events: the Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest and numerous neighborhood summer festivals. Ditto for the physical transformation of the city: O’Hare’s International Terminal, the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the museum campus, public transportation options to the airport and much more.

There’s also her controversial decision (or PR stunt, depending upon your interpretation) to move into the Cabrini-Green public housing development, as well as the protest that erupted when she held a public Easter celebration there.

But what Shana didn’t find is any structure or building or street around Chicago named for Mayor Byrne. That's despite the fact that she could have found plenty named in honor of other Chicago mayors — even some recent ones.

That led her to ask:

Why is there rare mention and no memorials, buildings or streets named after the only woman mayor of Chicago — Jane Byrne?

Shana’s question arrived as Chicago newspapers, local bloggers and columnists, city officials — you name it — were debating whether Jane Byrne deserved to have her name affixed on something, and whether or not she’s been ignored.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote what he called an “open letter” to Byrne ahead of her 80th birthday, where he talked about her legacy, and how she may think she’s been “forgotten, erased from history.”

Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, press secretary for Byrne for a short time in 1979, had led the charge. She'd written extensive columns about Byrne, listing her accomplishments and pushing for the city to honor its first woman mayor. Sneed wrote that Byrne’s “legacy has been ignored by subsequent mayoral administrations, basically erased during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s tenure in office, and long overdue for recognition.”

Sneed’s columns opened the floodgates for other media outlets to chase down the story, and for city officials to weigh in.

To answer why it took so long for Byrne’s name to grace any public assets, it helps to understand how something — anything — gets named by the city in the first place. And then, of course, there’s the core of Shana's concern: Why hadn't Byrne had anything named after her?

The process: Naming something after a Chicago mayor

The city of big shoulders has a penchant for slapping peoples’ names on things. (Just ask Donald Trump). But regardless of who the honored may be (Charlie Trotter, Frank Sinatra, or a Chicago mayor), the process eventually involves Chicago’s City Council.

Let’s start with city streets. Up until 1984, official street names and the green signs that depict their directions were up for grabs. For example Cermak Road, formerly 22nd Street, was named after Mayor Anton Cermak, who was assassinated while in office. Same goes for Hoyne Avenue, named after Mayor Thomas Hoyne. (Interestingly, Hoyne has a street named after him, despite the fact that he was never allowed to take office.)

But as one former alderman explained to the Chicago Tribune in 2000, this street-naming process became onerous. It requires permanent changes to maps, surveys and other records. The Honorary Street Ordinance changed the game in 1984. After that, brown honorary street signs began popping up, directly underneath the green signs that identify Chicago’s official street names.

What is named after Chicago's mayors?

(Click the right margin or swipe to proceed through the slides.)

 

Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza said, currently, the process begins with one of the city’s 50 aldermen. Any of them can write a resolution or ordinance to name a stretch of street. It then goes before the full council.

These resolutions pass unless they’re controversial. Mendoza says some aldermen in 2006 wanted to create Fred Hampton Way, after a leader in the Black Panther Party. Another time, an alderman wanted to name a portion of Michigan Avenue after Hugh Hefner, the Playboy Magazine magnate.

If an honorary street name ordinance passes City Council, the Chicago Department of Transportation creates the requisite brown sign and affixes it to the appropriate post.

The process works the same way for other structures, too: The council votes on a proposal to name a fountain, building or other public asset after someone. Mendoza says it’s most common to wait until after a mayor (or anyone else) dies. For example: Richard J. Daley Center was rededicated and named after him just days after he passed away.

There are a few ways to name something for a former mayor without the council’s purview. Private buildings, naturally, can be named without council approval. DePaul University's Richard M. and Maggie C. Daley Building is one notable example.

As for public school buildings, the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education has a written policy that a school can only be named after someone who has been deceased for at least six months. A sitting mayor and the district’s CEO can seek special exemptions, however. A CPS spokesman says this was the case for the naming of Barack Obama College Prep.

So, why was there nothing for Jane Byrne?

When it comes to political history, no single person (or opinion) can tell "the whole story." That's especially the case when it comes to why a controversial, so-called “machine-fighting,” tough cookie such as Jane Byrne had taken so long to be memorialized. 

As for asking the lady herself, she’s now 80 years old and is not in great health, after reportedly suffering from a stroke last year. Her only daughter, Kathy Byrne, a lawyer at local personal injury and mesothelioma firm Cooney and Conway, said her mom is “doing okay. She’s holding her own, she’s stable.”

Kathy Byrne was along for the roller coaster ride of her mom’s campaign and then election to the 5th floor office in 1979. Despite that, she's not sure how to answer Shana Jackson’s “why so long” question.

“You know, I think sometimes — what do they say? Politics isn’t a beanbag?” she said. “And people take their politics very seriously in Chicago, and I think whether or not anything was intentional, it may just be sort of an effect where if someone perceived that if someone doesn’t like someone, they’re not going to do anything for the person they don’t like. ... I don’t know that anything was intentional, I think it may have been a misperception.”

Kathy Byrne was obliquely referring to Chicago lore — printed in the papers and spoken in bars — that Mayor Richard M. Daley was behind Jane Byrne’s absence from Chicago streets and buildings.

Several people I spoke with for this story were quick to blame him.

“There’s an old adage, young lady,” said Paul Green, Director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University. “It’s called Irish Alzheimer's: You forget everything but your grudges, and the Daley family and the Byrne family have been grudging themselves for a long time.”

Green said he believes the battle between Jane Byrne and Daley was “personal” and that Daley didn’t want her recognized for anything. But he said it’s also true that there had not been any true grassroots support for Byrne.

“She left not exactly in the blaze of glory,” Green said. “She needed to be calm about what she was about, because not only was she the first woman, but it was the first time in approximately 70 years that the Democratic organization lost the mayoral primary, so she had to go slow, and she didn’t.

“To her credit, she had an amazing number of ideas, but it was more subject with no predicate.”

But others, like Byrne’s first campaign manager, Don Rose, blame it all on Daley.

“Richie Daley did everything possible to make the world forget she ever existed,” Rose said. “They were mortal enemies. He conceived it that way.”

Rose said he and Byrne didn’t part on the best of terms, but he stressed that doesn’t influence his appraisal of her. He said Daley’s should have been the administration that took on the task of honoring her. Since Byrne had run against Harold Washington in 1983, Washington was likely not in the mood to honor her in anyway during his time in office, according to Rose. By his recollection, a mayor will be honored posthumously, and perhaps one or two mayors down the road. Following this logic, Byrne would have been honored after Richard M. Daley took office in 1989.

“[Daley] was, I have to say, very mean-spirited about Jane Byrne. Of course, I would say, she was mean-spirited about him too,” Rose said. “If the positions had been reversed, she might have tried to forget about naming anything after him.”

But Ald. Burke — who served on the Council during Byrne’s administration — said she originally eschewed recognition, and Daley isn’t to blame.

“He never, in my presence, expressed any reluctance to have Mayor Byrne honored in any way,” he said.

Listen: Jane Byrne on her legacy

Kathy Byrne said she’s not certain Daley is to blame, either.

“I can’t explain anyone’s motivation or even if they have motivation,” she said. “I would imagine if somebody’s running Chicago, they ought to have bigger things on their minds than erasing or not erasing someone else’s legacy.”

But one thing is for sure: Kathy said she and her mom have been bothered by the whole thing. She recalled school girls would interview her mother during Women’s History Month projects. Jane, she said, couldn’t point the girls to anything named after her.

“She could tell them things, like the [CTA] Orange Line, museum campus, but there was nothing that backed up her assertion, and I think that was kind of frustrating,” Byrne said.

“I think it was kind of disillusioning, or the worry that it would be disillusioning to little girls that they could do all this work, and have all these achievements and then it might be ignored, and other people would take credit for them.”

Jane Byrne International Terminal?

But now, just over 30 years since she left office, Byrne will soon have something to point to: the park plaza around the Water Tower. This was just one of the ideas pitched to the City Council by Ald. Burke.

The gesture was a far cry from one of the more infamous moments of Byrne and Burke’s relationship. Byrne, while on the campaign trail, called out Ald. Burke as part of a “cabal of evil men” who ran the City Council.

“It was the legendary British statesman Edmund Burke who once said that, in politics, there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends — only permanent interests,” Burke said, referring to a quotation he often uses. “I think it is in the municipal interest that a person who achieved what Jane Byrne achieved in our history should be accorded an appropriate honor.”

Burke officially proposed renaming four structures to become Jane Byrne memorials: the Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain in Grant Park; Navy Pier’s grand ballroom; the plaza surrounding the Old Chicago Water Tower; and the O’Hare International Terminal. 

Kathy Byrne had predicted her mother would be happy with the selection of the Water Tower idea. It’s right across the street from the Gold Coast apartment where she lived while mayor.

Byrne says a Water Tower memorial would be even better if the city could move her mom’s beloved Children’s Fountain to that site. Jane Byrne, while mayor, originally dedicated the Children’s Fountain on Wacker Drive. The fountain was later moved to Lincoln Park, where it sits today.

“I don’t know what that would entail, but the plumbing is all there,” Byrne said. “If they could do that, that would be ideal,  if they could name that park Jane Byrne Plaza. It’s her neighborhood, it’s the Chicago historical landmark of the Water Tower, and it would be a really nice tribute.”

Our question comes from: Shana Jackson

Shana Jackson calls herself a total South Side girl. She’s been living in or around Chicago for her entire life, except when she pursued a degree from Hampton University in Virginia. She currently resides in the Ashburn/Wrightwood neighborhood.

And that’s why she says she’s embarrassed to admit the story behind her Curious City question.  

Her parents are former teachers, and so her dad is always quizzing her on things. During a recent family night, Shana’s dad shot her his latest pop quiz question:

“So, what do you think about our only woman mayor in Chicago?”

Shana’s response?

“‘What woman mayor?” Shana recalls. “And he gave me the weirdest stare ever, because I’m super womanist, like ‘yay woman power!’ And for me to not know there was a woman mayor in Chicago? I was so embarrassed.”

Shana turned things around, though, by doing some Internet research. She said when she couldn't find any streets or buildings named after Byrne, she came to Curious City to find out why. 

Even then, she couldn't let the issue go. As she kept up with the news about the proposals, she couldn't help but believe Jane Byrne deserved some recognition.

“I think that is a travesty,” she said. “How do we as Chicago — we put our names on everything — how did we let her down like this?”

Shana is currently pursuing a dual degree in social work and law at Loyola University Chicago.

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ reporter. Digital producer Tricia Bobeda contributed to this story.