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“They don’t live very fancy here at Cabrini

Thirty-seven years ago, Mayor Jane Byrne moved into the Cabrini-Green housing project to draw attention to the violence and poverty there. It would become one of the most famous—and factious—publicity stunts in the city’s history.

Composite of archive photos of Mayor Jane Byrne moving into the Cabrini-Green housing project
Clockwise from top left: Byrne peeks out from her fourth-floor apartment on March 25, 1981, six days before taking up residence; leaving with bodyguards in tow; at the time she moved in, the 23-tower Cabrini-Green was coming off a particularly violent stretch, with 11 people murdered and 37 others shot over three months.
Excerpted with permission from High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen, to be published on February 6 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. Photos above: (BYRNE AT WINDOW) ERNIE COX JR./CHICAGO TRIBUNE; (BYRNE WITH BODYGUARDS) Bettmann/Corbis/ Getty Images; (Cabrini-Green) Frank Hanes/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

On a Monday night in March 1981, 30 people gathered in the ground-floor rec room of a Cabrini-Green high-rise to hear a group called the Electric Force Band. The lead singer was a 21-year-old named Larry Potts, who could sound like Frankie Lymon or Little Anthony. The group covered radio songs, mostly funk and soul—Cameo, Rick James, Con Funk Shun. As the band performed, someone passing by outside stuck a .357 Magnum through an open window and fired several times. One bullet hit a 6-year-old in the right thigh, and another shot ricocheted off a wall and struck a 14-year-old girl in the leg. Both children would be OK. Larry Potts was shot through the back and died that night at a North Side hospital. The shooter, a 24-year-old named Jerry Lusby, a Cobra Stone gang member from another Cabrini-Green high-rise, told police that he mistook the singer for a rival gang member.

The next morning, as Jane Byrne was getting ready for work, drinking coffee and putting on makeup, she heard on the radio news of the singer’s death. Not his name or who he was. The reporter simply broadcast that there had been another killing at Cabrini-Green. Byrne, elected as Chicago’s mayor two years earlier, lived on the 43rd floor of a luxury high-rise less than a mile east of the Near North Side public housing project. She could look out her window on the Gold Coast and see Cabrini-Green’s palisade of red and white towers. When Byrne’s grandfather immigrated to Chicago from County Mayo, Ireland, in 1888, the first place he lived was in Little Hell, the Irish ghetto that was the future site of Cabrini-Green. Her grandfather’s older brother, who’d made the journey four years earlier, warned him to stay clear of the gangs that terrorized the neighborhood. A century later, after construction of the Cabrini rowhouses and 23 public housing high-rises, gangs there were still causing havoc. In the first three months of 1981 alone, 11 people were murdered and 37 others shot at Cabrini-Green.

Byrne decided right then that as mayor she was obligated to do something about the violence. Eleven days later, she announced that she would take up residence at the housing project. “I will keep that Cabrini-Green apartment in the way that many suburbanites keep a downtown or in-town apartment,” she said. “I will consider it as a place to go on some nights and not on others. I will not give up the apartment so long as I am mayor.”

She picked as her new home what she’d heard was the most troubled of all the high-rises, the building where Larry Potts’s killer lived, 1150–1160 North Sedgwick Street, the Rock. When the building’s manager started showing apartments to Byrne’s advance team, the first “vacant” unit he opened had a family living in it. He used his keys on a second officially empty apartment. Unofficial occupants lived there as well. By then the overall population at Cabrini-Green had fallen from a high of somewhere around 20,000 in the 1960s, to 14,000. But the Chicago Housing Authority estimated that another 6,000 people likely stayed there who weren’t on a lease.

A reporter who visited the high-rise before the arrival of the mayor’s cleaning crew described the fresh urine pooled in one of the two elevators, the graffiti covering the walls—“Disciples Kills All Stones”—and the fear he felt in the narrow corridors and stairwells. The toilets were out of order in the lobby. The screen door on the mayor’s new fourth-floor apartment was punched in and lolling off its hinges. Second graders at Cabrini-Green’s Byrd Elementary sent letters to Byrne urging her to stay away: “A lot of black people live here and you are a white person”; “Roaches and rats might drive you crazy”; “You may be shot, stab or assassinated.” In 1978, Byrne had married Jay McMullen, a City Hall reporter with the tippling insouciance of an emcee at a Dean Martin roast. When McMullen first visited the Rock, the elevator taking him up to his apartment broke down, stranding him and 11 others between floors. When freed, he walked the four flights, the light bulbs missing in the stairwells, trash piled up around the garbage chutes at each landing. “It ain’t the Ritz,” he told the reporters with him, but he wasn’t too worried. “I’ve slept in some pretty unusual places in my life.”

Byrne touches hands with youngsters outside her building, three days into her stay. She vowed to keep her residence at Cabrini-Green for as long as she remained mayor, but left after 25 days. Photo: Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Tribune

The couple moved in on March 31, arriving in a limousine and hurried inside by a security detail of 16. The apartment next to Byrne’s was cleared so that two guards were stationed nearby at all times. Bulletproof glass panels were installed on her windows. President Reagan had been shot the day before, in an attempted assassination. Byrne had received death threats as well. “While I was mostly philosophical about such threats,” Byrne wrote in a diary of her stay that was published in the Sun-Times, “Jay was grimly humorous, stating, ‘You’ll be safer in Cabrini. The place has such a bad reputation most assassins will be afraid to go there.’ ” She added, “And now it is our pleasure to take turns using a hand shower that our guards attached to the bathtub faucet. They don’t live very fancy here at Cabrini.”

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Byrne was engaged in a brazen political stunt, a ploy to jump-start declining poll numbers midway through her first term. She’d won the black vote over incumbent Michael Bilandic in the 1979 mayoral election, but once in office she’d reduced the number of African Americans in key civic positions. She’d installed a black interim police chief but given the permanent job to Richard Brzeczek, a white veteran of the force. She removed two of the five African Americans on the 11-member school board, replacing them with whites who were openly opposed to desegregation through busing. Byrne had pivoted, hoping to shore up support among whites, but the backlash was fiercer than she’d expected. In Chicago’s zero-sum racial politics, each of these moves was treated as a declaration of war. Relocating to one of the country’s most infamous black ghettos would demonstrate that she cared about issues affecting the African American community.

As political theater, it was compelling stuff. The 47-year-old Byrne was a small woman, heavily rouged, with a blond bob and a mouth that seemed perpetually pursed with nervousness. She was partial to mink coats, ruffles, and pastels. The local and national news ran with the story of this tough Irishwoman living in the notorious housing project. She was like Kurt Russell’s character in that year’s Escape from New York, entering the ruins of the postapocalyptic city, except she wore a purple suede jacket and a pink skirt. “Mrs. Byrne is crossing the invisible but powerful line which has always separated the haves from the have-nots,” wrote the Chicago Defender. “It is a stunt whose redeeming political symbolism elevates it to the lofty heights of civic and moral responsibility.”

To her credit, Byrne understood the practical effect the media attention would have on Cabrini-Green. She occupied the seat of power, and she could bring that power with her to public housing. “Wherever a mayor goes, there seem to be city services galore,” she said. Once there, she launched a sports initiative for the thousands of local youths, beginning construction on three new baseball diamonds and a football field on the site of the shuttered Cooley high school. Two other parks received upgrades. Potholes were filled and cars towed. Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation swept gutters and picked up trash. Sod was planted (but it all died). Sewers were repaired. Plumbing and heating systems in the buildings received upgrades. Byrne created a new food cooperative at Cabrini-Green. She sent staffers from Human Services into the high-rises to counsel truants, work with victims of crimes, and help alleviate domestic conflict.

Seven area liquor stores were closed, the city citing them for a range of electrical or structural violations, and hundreds of families were evicted, some for illegally housing parolees suspected of gang activity. Byrne opened a new misdemeanor court at a nearby police station to hear what was expected to be a torrent of new cases. A retired army major general, who’d commanded the Green Berets, was given the position of directing all security at Cabrini-Green. A special task force of 50 federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was assigned to stop the trafficking of guns there. For the 150 Chicago police officers who participated in a Sunday raid of the purportedly vacant apartments at Cabrini-Green, she gave each of them a white envelope with $50 inside, money from her political fund, instructing them to treat their wives or girlfriends to a nice meal; Byrne also awarded $800 to six officers who solved a Cabrini-Green murder. Police crowded the streets; firemen and paramedics entered the towers without fear. More work went on at the housing project in two weeks than had occurred in the previous two years.

Byrne’s Cabrini sojourn led every TV newscast; slightly different installments appeared in the morning and late-edition newspapers. The Sun-Times ran daily opinion polls: “Will Mayor Byrne’s Cabrini-Green move make a difference?” “If you were Mayor Byrne, would you move into Cabrini-Green?” The City Council passed a resolution praising her decision to take an apartment there, and other city politicians announced their own intentions to stay in public housing. When New York City mayor Ed Koch was asked if he, too, would consider a similar move, he said he’d grown up poor and had no desire to go back.

“Rumors, roaches, rats and gangs are the curse of Cabrini,” Byrne wrote in her Sun-Times diary. She mused on the subject of the cockroach, how she’d developed the reflex to sweep walls and let faucets run before using them, so much so that when she left town on business, spending a night at a luxury hotel in Manhattan, she found herself doing the “cockroach check.” “Did you remember to pack the Raid, dear?” her husband asked drolly. She recounted going to bed to the CBS Evening News, just as she and Jay did most nights, though now they were in a Cabrini-Green bedroom and Walter Cronkite was talking about them. In one diary entry, Byrne described standing at her apartment window as white joggers waved and blew her kisses from Division Street: “It was like seeing the first robin in the spring. We hope more will come by and not be afraid.” A poll found that 60 percent of Chicagoans would vote for her if the election were held then, with 27 percent saying her Cabrini-Green stay changed their vote. Two-thirds of those interviewed felt she was trying to solve problems at the housing project, and nearly three-quarters thought the move sincere.

Byrne and her husband, Jay McMullen, in their Cabrini-Green pied-à-terre Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

In many struggling sections of Chicago that were not Cabrini-Green, community leaders couldn’t comprehend why the city was funneling its scant resources into a single 70-acre plot of land. There were dozens of other public housing developments in the city, and numerous neighborhoods in need of services and revitalization, most of them without the advantage of being a few blocks from the mayor’s home. Many Cabrini-Green residents also resented Byrne’s presence. They accused her of creating a police state; some reported being stopped and frisked five times whenever they walked from a building to the corner grocery. Hundreds were arrested, almost all for misdemeanors, with just about every case eventually dismissed. Elax Taylor, who’d operated the 911 Teen Club in the basement of his high-rise for decades, received an eviction notice because his 17-year-old son was found with marijuana. Even Police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek admitted that his officers were treading a “very, very fine line between maintaining order and becoming oppressive.”

The activist Marion Stamps was especially vocal in her criticisms of the mayor. Her community center, Tranquility-Marksman, sat across Division Street from Byrne’s new apartment, and she had a close relationship with the families in the 1150–1160 North Sedgwick high-rise, the young men even bestowing on her the honorific “Mama Stone,” for the support she’d given youngsters who later became Cobra Stones. Stamps was a short 35-year-old with a round, expressive face, often framed in oversize oblong glasses. But with her bullhorn voice and intensity, she gave the impression of someone of much larger stature.

She was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1945, and as a girl picketed the segregated public library that wouldn’t lend her books. Medgar Evers lived close by, and the civil rights leader trained her as an organizer. When she was 17, she moved to Chicago, and in 1965 she landed an apartment in Cabrini-Green. Public housing, she said, was “a godsend, a blessing, compared to the slum housing I was living in before. For me the move to Cabrini-Green represented something bigger and better.” It was also a place, she would say, where “social workers question your man- and womanhood and think nothing of it. Politicians make promises of jobs and welfare checks for your votes, or no jobs and no welfare check if you don’t vote the way the precinct captain has dictated. Then we have Chicago’s finest, the police who only serve and protect property and property rights.” She blamed the “street organizations” as well, “the misguided black folks among us who sell dope to our children, who intimidate and force our children into gangs.”

All of this compelled her into activism. At Cabrini-Green, she raised five daughters and headed up the Chicago Housing Tenants Organization. She ran a program for expectant mothers, since the infant mortality rates there were on par with those in the third world. She pressed for a new school to be built in the community, one she helped get named for the slave-turned-abolitionist Sojourner Truth. And she despised the idea of Mayor Byrne as a “white savior” coming to Cabrini-Green to rescue the poor black folk. With a flair for the incendiary, Stamps compared Byrne to the Ku Klux Klan, telling news outlets that life at Cabrini-Green with the mayor there was like living in a concentration camp or a South African township under apartheid. “When you are not free enough to speak up or go out of your house, you are already victim to a form of death,” she said.

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The tensions came to a head at the mayor’s Spiritual Easter Celebration, a daylong event held in the third week of Byrne’s stay at Cabrini-Green. A giant white cross was erected on Division Street, and a choir sang along with Byrne that “God’s got Cabrini-Green in his hands.” The event featured a Ferris wheel, men playing the bongos, free cotton candy, and circus rides. Reggie Theus of the Bulls, Chet Lemon and Minnie Minoso of the White Sox, and members of the Bears and the Chicago Hustle, the Women’s Professional Basketball League franchise, all spoke from a stage about hope and revival. Byrne was introduced by one of her officials as “the newest and one of the truest residents of Cabrini-Green.” In her memoir, Byrne said she responded to the event’s low turnout by confronting the gangs directly, accusing them of scaring children away from the festivities. Division Street had become an actual dividing line between the Cobra Stones in the red towers on the south side of the street and the Disciples in the white towers on the north side. Even Disciples from the “Whites” and the “Reds” saw each other as rivals. Pleading from the stage, Byrne implored children to go back to their high-rises to get their friends, since they’d surely hate to miss the free food and games.

As the mayor sang an off-key “Easter Parade,” protesters waved placards, chanting, “We need jobs, not eggs.” Byrne contended that the demonstrators were all gang plants. But they included a range of Cabrini-Green tenants and other activists, among them Marion Stamps. Her organization counseled dozens of residents who were evicted when Byrne moved into Cabrini-Green, and it managed to reverse almost every single case. Stamps stood alongside members of the Heart of Uptown Coalition, a group that blamed the mayor’s eviction policies for creating tensions between poor blacks and poor whites, many of whom were former Appalachian coal miners who’d moved to Chicago’s North Side in pursuit of a better life free of black lung disease. Stamps said that the placing of the white cross in their black neighborhood felt like psychological warfare. She pointed out that Byrne managed to employ every convention of the white colonizer subduing a native population, appeasing them with religion, sports, petty entertainments, junk food, and trinkets. At some point the police decided they’d heard enough. As officers cuffed and hauled the protesters away, a lawyer tried to intervene. “What is he being charged with?” he shouted. “Who’s the arresting officer?” He was thrown into a paddy wagon as well. All the while, one protester shrieked, “Assassins!”

The Easter celebration Byrne held was met with protests from some residents and activists. Photo: Walter KALE/CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Activist Marion Stamps likened the mayor to a white colonizer subduing the natives. Photo: CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Byrne left on a California vacation the following week, deciding then to end her residency at Cabrini-Green. In the 25 days that she lived in an apartment there, only one person had been shot. The crime wave had subsided. “We never will leave Cabrini and neither should anybody else,” Byrne wrote in her final diary entry. The mayor did return to Cabrini-Green occasionally. She showed up later that year when two teen residents opened the area’s only newsstand. Over the summer she led the ribbon cutting of a new athletic complex named for Police Sergeant James Severin and Officer Anthony Rizzato, killed in Cabrini-Green in 1970 by snipers firing from two high-rises. The plaque stated, “This field is dedicated to all people who wish to live together in brotherly love.”

A hundred dignitaries were in attendance, including family members of the slain officers. Byrne came out for a couple of baseball games, and her husband coached a team there for a few seasons. McMullen bought children mitts, and when the grass went weeks without a cutting, he called the park superintendent to get it done.

But Byrne’s bump in popularity from the Cabrini-Green move was short-lived. Within a day of her leaving, news outlets were already going with the story of the housing development’s intractable problems: “Residents say services left with her.” The 16-­member security detail set up to guard the lobbies and monitor closed-circuit televisions was disbanded; the CHA said funding dried up.

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Byrne also undermined the goodwill she’d garnered with African Americans. For starters, she refused to get rid of Charles Swibel, who’d been abusing his position as head of the CHA since 1963. Swibel was one of Byrne’s biggest fund-raisers and closest advisers, and the two of them often rode together in her limo. From 1978 to 1982, nine different reports by auditors and consultants found that the CHA was in shambles. The ninth of these reports was conducted by urban planner Oscar Newman, who had once argued that superblock public housing, like that in Cabrini-Green, abetted crime by creating dead zones with no sense of shared ownership or communal supervision. Yet Newman concluded that the problems in Chicago went way beyond bad architecture: “In every area we examined, from finance to maintenance, from administration to outside contracting, from staffing to project management, from purchasing to accounting, the CHA was found to be operating in a state of profound confusion and disarray. No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.” By then each public housing development in Chicago had an average backlog of a thousand unfilled repair requests. A survey of the 430 elevators across all CHA buildings revealed that 250 of them weren’t operating. After a nine-month investigation, the FBI charged six CHA maintenance workers with pilfering millions of dollars’ worth of paint, floor tiles, and roofing materials.

Byrne fired Swibel only after HUD threatened to withhold federal funding to the city if she retained him. In his place, she installed her former campaign manager. At the same time, she also expanded the CHA’s board from five to seven members and appointed three white commissioners, changing the governing board from majority black to majority white. In 1983, after Byrne was voted out of office, her husband said he just so happened to bump into a pitcher from one of the Cabrini-Green Little League teams he coached.

“Hey, Mr. Jay, are you gonna be running the team?” the boy asked.

“No, Lefty. We got beat, ya know.”

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