American Talk

How Jane Byrne symbolised Chicago's transition

The death of Jane Byrne, the only woman to become mayor of Chicago, has prompted the expected spate of stories on her chaotic one-term reign, her feisty personality and, especially, the snowstorm that swept her into power. But these eulogies missed the real significance of her election — that she benefited from and symbolised Chicago’s transformation from an industrial to a global city.

It’s an instructive lesson in how cities change and mutate, with even the people who live in them unaware of what’s going on until something big — like a blizzard — comes along.

The first Mayor Daley, Richard J., died in 1976 and was succeeded by Michael Bilandic, an alderman and loyal soldier in the Daley Democratic Machine that ruled Chicago. In 1979, Bilandic ran for a full term. No one doubted he would win easily. He had the Machine behind him and very little opposition — mostly a relatively obscure and erratic woman named Jane Byrne, a Daley protégé whom Bilandic had purged from City Hall.

The times were about to change.

During his 21-year rule, Daley bragged that Chicago was “The City That Works.” No Chicagoan questioned this — at least nobody in power, in the media, in business circles, in Daley’s own circle. Naysayers were ostracised: “How many trees do they plant?” the old man said in scorn. Chicago’s endemic second-city defensiveness ensured that no one questioned the city’s continued clout and confidence.

But Chicago had stopped working. In the Daley–Bilandic years of the 1970s, the city lost 361,000 people, one-fourth of its factories, and nearly 180,000 jobs. The city’s debt doubled but the assessed valuation of its real estate flat-lined.

Little of this was visible from downtown. Daley and the business community preserved the Loop, but at a price. By the time he died, this central business district, which was less than 1 per cent of the city’s land area, accounted for 40 per cent of its property taxes.

Outside the Loop, Chicago crumbled. Mills and factories closed and the neighbourhoods they supported plunged into poverty. Infrastructure maintenance lagged. The school system eroded. As people and jobs left, Chicago lost tax money, which meant it couldn’t pay for the services of a going city.

In short, Chicago had stopped planting trees — or doing much of anything else. The City That Works couldn’t deliver basic services, such as education, to its own neighbourhoods.

If all this was invisible from the Loop, it was all too real in the neighbourhoods and, especially, in the inner city African-American neighborhoods, still highly segregated and always the first to feel spending cuts.

But what were they going to do? The Machine ruled Chicago, and that was that. Byrne, derided by her foes as “Crazy Jane,” campaigned on charges that Bilandic and his cronies didn’t know what they were doing, but nobody paid her any attention.

And then it began to snow.

The snows started in early January. From January 2–12, the temperatures fell below zero every day. The true monster, a 20-inch blizzard, fell on January 13–14.

‚ÄčThe city was punchdrunk. Unplowed streets became impassable. Public transportation broke down. Clearly, a city notorious for its winter weather had no real plan to cope with the blizzard, apart from a useless booklet written on a sweetheart contract by a former deputy mayor, that contained mostly ads for snow removal equipment.

Even then, the city didn’t get it. Bilandic went on television to claim that streets were being cleared. School and park district lots were plowed, he said, and open for parking. But anyone who went outside could see that neither claim was true.

It got worse. Even commuter trains that were running sped through stations in black neighborhoods, leaving African Americans standing in the cold, staring at the white faces inside the cars.

And still the city didn’t get it. The Chicago Tribune editorialised that “most people are doing the best they can, and their best is often very good indeed ... Bilandic has shown a high degree of leadership.”

For his part, Bilandic compared his critics to the Romans who crucified Jesus. (The Tribune reporter who wrote about this ended up as Byrne’s chief of staff.)

Outside the Loop, in the neighbourhoods, Chicagoans were getting the idea that Crazy Jane was right — that City Hall didn’t know what it was doing, that the city really didn’t work.

What happened, of course, is that the city’s economic decline finally became vivid to the people who had to live with it. The city’s shrunken economy paid shrunken taxes with provided shrunken services. When those services were put to the test, they weren’t there.

In February, the weather let up and voters went to the polls for the Democratic primary election — in Chicago, the only election that counts. Byrne barely beat Bilandic, then defeated the token Republican candidate in the general election and became mayor.

In truth, she was a poor mayor. The old industrial economy was still eroding, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Chicago’s blacks continued to get the worst services. Byrne made things worse by ignoring black needs: among other things, she appointed a notorious slumlord to lead the city’s housing authority, which oversaw housing projects. Having fought the Machine in the election, she was co-opted by it in office. But it was a frayed Machine and did her little good.

Byrne’s tumultuous mayoralty ended four years later when black voters deserted her and elected Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. Washington was a better mayor but fought both the declining economy and a bitter four-year battle with racist whites on the City Council. He finally prevailed, winning re-election, then died at his desk.

In retrospect, we can see that the city’s turnaround, from industrial city to global city, probably began on Washington’s watch. Both he and Byrne had the luck — good and bad — to preside over the city’s Rust Belt days. They were lucky that the economy undercut the Machine and opened the door to their election. They were unlucky in the same economy left their own administrations strapped for funds.

When Daley’s son, Richard M., became mayor in 1989, he inherited a city that was beginning to recover. He reconstituted the crippled Machine and made it work for him for the next 22 years, but it was a very different Machine: focused on services instead of jobs , still Loop-centric but more attendant to the neighbourhoods, and at least formally inclusive of black leaders.

Byrne couldn’t command this transition but her election symbolised it. The old Chicago was dying and the new one was not yet in sight. Perhaps in this strange interregnum, her madcap mayoralty was the best we could have had.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner