Byrne, Chicago's 1st Female Mayor, Dies

By Babwin, Don | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), November 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Byrne, Chicago's 1st Female Mayor, Dies


Babwin, Don, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


CHICAGO - Jane Byrne, who capitalized on Chicago's slow reaction to a snowstorm to score one of the biggest election upsets in the city's history and become its first and only female mayor, died Friday. She was 81. Byrne, whose four-year term brought festivals and filmmakers to Chicago but was also filled with upheaval at City Hall, died at a hospice in Chicago, said her daughter, Kathy.

Byrne famously beat Mayor Michael Bilandic in 1979 after his administration failed to adequately clear streets fast enough after a blizzard. But during her term, she was branded with nicknames such as "Calamity Jane as she speedily fired and hired people in such top jobs as police superintendent and press secretary.

"It was chaos, Byrne herself acknowledged in a 2004 Chicago Tribune story, attributing many of the problems to her wresting power from the old boy Democratic machine that had ruled the city for decades. "Like the spaghetti in a pressure cooker, it was all over the ceiling.

Byrne was also credited with changing the feel of the city. She started the popular Taste of Chicago festival and initiated open- air farmers' markets.

"The formula was basic: The more attractions, the more people, the more life for the city, she wrote in her 1994 book "My Chicago. "I vowed to bring back the crowds, to make Chicago so lively that the people would return to the heart of the city and its abandoned parks.

It was Byrne who let John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd film "Blues Brothers in Chicago. She even granted Belushi's request to crash a car through a window at Daley Plaza, figuring loyalists of the late Richard J. Daley didn't like her anyway.

She also helped draw national attention to the infamous Cabrini- Green public housing complex when she and her husband moved into an apartment there after a gang war killed 11 residents in three months in 1981. They stayed for three weeks.

"How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map? she wrote in her book. "Suddenly I knew - I could move in there.

By the end of her first year in the mayor's office, Chicago had dealt with transit, fire and school strikes, with the mayor sometimes confronting striking workers on the picket lines.

"The city of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer, said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "From signing the first ordinance to get handguns off of our streets, to bringing more transparency to the city's budget, to creating the Taste of Chicago, Mayor Byrne leaves a large and lasting legacy. …

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