Let’s face it: Chicago loves to name things after politicians almost as much as it loves to eat hot dogs, root for losing baseball teams and neurotically compare itself to other cities like New York.
So the recent news that the City Council Finance Committee gave approval to rename the park surrounding Chicago’s historic Water Tower as “Jane M. Byrne Plaza” in honor of the former mayor makes a lot of sense.
After all, there’s already 10 major cultural and civic institutions named after the Daley clan in this town. And that’s only because Richie’s been out of office for less than a full mayoral term. Give it a few years or so, and I’m sure we can come up with something else to throw the Daley name on.
After the name Daley, however, the naming of stuff after politicians starts to drop off dramatically.
Oh, sure – there’s a few big things named after the late Harold Washington, like the Harold Washington Library, Harold Washington Cultural Center and the Harold Washington College. That’s because more than almost any other mayor, Washington truly did transform the way politics are run in this town.
But Jane Byrne, Eugene Sawyer or Michael Bilandic—the only other mayors not named Daley or Washington in the past 60 years or so? Hardly a peep for them until now.
I mean, does anyone really know there’s a building on LaSalle Street named after Mike Bilandic?
So, by my estimation, Jane deserves her day in the sun. She was one of the most colorful, passionate and, quite frankly, unpredictable public officials this city has ever had.
Who can forget the moment when she attempted to hold an Easter celebration in the shadow of the Cabrini green housing project that ended in a “disturbing example of police brutality”?
Or her attempt to highlight the challenges of living in poverty in public housing by moving into Cabrini green with her husband, only to give up and move out three weeks later.
Or the time when notorious stunt man “SpiderDan” Dan Goodwin was in danger of being hosed off the side of the John Hancock Center to his possible death before Mayor Byrne had to step in and allow him to climb to the top of the 110-story building.
But if we really wanted to find a good reason to name something public after Byrne, it should be this: there’s perhaps no better example of someone beating the Chicago political machine in retribution than Jane Byrne becoming mayor in the first place.
Four months after being fired by then-mayor Bilandic for publicly opposing a taxi-fare increase that Bilandic supported, Byrne put together a rag-tag team of political operatives and managed to upset the incumbent in the 1979 elections.
It didn't hurt that Bilandic shot himself in the foot repeatedly during a record snowstorm that year. He said parking lots were plowed when anyone could see they weren’t. He told old people that if their cars were towed, they should talk to the judge about it. He denied the CTA was ignoring passing black passengers, even though train stations were being closed in primarily black neighborhoods.
Despite being given very little chance of winning by the city’s political establishment, Byrne managed to paint Bilandic as out of touch, and went on to win with 82 percent of the vote—the largest margin of victory in Chicago history.
It was the biggest “screw you” anyone had managed to pull off up to that point—and maybe since—against the Chicago Machine. And it was done by the city’s first female mayor, who was the very definition of the old Chicago saying “We don't want nobody nobody sent”.
So let’s give Jane a park to be named after her. And maybe a few more things, like a statue of a giant fist punching the Chicago political machine right in the face.
Despite all her problems and numerous political follies, she deserves it for that alone.