In 1981, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne took the unusual step of moving into one of the Cabrini Green housing units. In this day and age, when politicians have second homes and travel allowances, this seems strange for a politician, but in 1981, it was an even more provocative action for a Mayor to take. But did you know what happened after Mayor Bryne moved in?
To improve the project’s reputation, Chicago mayor Jane Byrne moved into the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green public housing project in 1981. Despite having bodyguards, she left a few weeks later, adding to the public’s perception of Cabrini-Green as the worst of the worst neighborhood in the city.
Why Did Mayor Bryne Want to Improve Cabrini-Green’s Reputation?
The first reason was to show that this area was not as bad as its critics would have you believe. It would be difficult for a Mayor to claim to be a reformer who has made significant strides against inequality if the city’s housing projects were deemed unsafe and uninhabitable. Cabrini Green, notorious for crime and urban blight, had also come to symbolize racial and class divisions. The Mayor drew and courted the media, which followed her as she entered and exited the project.
Byrne’s goal with this publicity was to bring attention to the city’s inequity. By relocating to one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, she hoped to shed light on the city’s neglected side and, in turn, demonstrate that Chicago was a city worth investing in.
Byrne had been in office since 1979, but 1981 was her most significant year. In 1981, 11 reported gang killings and a violent assault on a teenage girl in the first few months. As these incidents made headlines, Byrne came under fire for her policies and ability to protect the most vulnerable citizens.
As a Democrat, she found the headlines depicting the decay and fear surrounding the projects deeply humiliating. During her campaign, she positioned herself as a reformer. It was now time to put that plan into action. (Source: Head Stuff)
Improving Public Safety in the City
Byrne wanted to show her dedication to improving safety in public housing projects by moving in herself. She would also be able to see firsthand the issues that Cabrini Green was dealing with. Byrne stated that she would stay as long as it took to clean it up, cutting through layers of bureaucracy to get to the root of the problem.
Cabrini Green had a bad reputation for a long time. In the 1850s, nearby gas refineries produced shooting pillars of flame and toxic fumes, giving rise to the moniker Little Hell. This became the primary entry point for Irish emigrants into the city. The same issues of poverty, inequality, and danger would persist. A 1931 map of Chicago’s gangland by Bruce-Roberts included death corner with the additional chilling note 50 murders: count em is an example of this.
Building on the first public housing units began in 1942 as part of the mid-twentieth-century urban renewal across America. However, the end of World War II resulted in the closure of many nearby factories and the creation of thousands of new jobs. It was only a short time before the struggling city started withdrawing services from the projects.
This included police patrols as well as building upkeep. The later stages of construction were carried out on a shoestring budget. These new homes were of poor quality and quickly developed maintenance issues. The population had to be 75% white, according to 1942 regulations. The controls were later found to be racially discriminatory, and they were removed in 1966. This contributed to the area’s changing demographic.
Cabrini-Green experienced white flight, as did many other housing projects and inner cities across America. It didn’t take long for Cabrini Green to become overwhelmingly African-American and impoverished. This contributed to Chicago’s image of racial and class inequality. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1992 that half of Cabrini-Green’s 7,000 residents were under 20. Only 9% of residents worked, and single-parent households were the norm. (Source: Head Stuff)