5:10 PM CDT, August 29, 2014
Former Mayor Jane Byrne made a rare public appearance Friday as Chicago’s main confluence of major highways was renamed in her honor, a nod to her status as the only female ever elected to the city’s top political post.
The Circle Interchange where the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Dan Ryan expressways meet Congress Parkway just west of downtown is now the Jane Byrne Interchange, a title Gov. Pat Quinn said is appropriate because of her inclusive style. The governor pointed to Byrne’s legacy, which includes being the first mayor to march in the Gay Pride Parade and starting the Taste of Chicago, as proof of her vision for the city.
“We decided the Jane Byrne Interchange would be the right name for coming together, a bridge that brought people together,” Quinn said as Byrne looked on from a wheelchair at the sign unveiling ceremony. “I think it’s a very important way of honoring somebody very special who understood how important it was for the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois to be a welcoming place.”
While the circle is but a small “spaghetti bowl” in the sprawling Chicago road network, its key location ensures Byrne's name will be repeatedly in Chicago drivers' ears throughout the day as radio traffic reports regularly give drive times into the interchange from far flung locations.
It’s not the only honor in store for Byrne, 81, who toppled the vaunted Richard J. Daley machine that had groomed her and went on to serve a single four-year mayoral term that ended in 1983, when Harold Washington defeated her and then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley in the Democratic primary.
Last month, the City Council decided to rename the park next to the historic Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue after Byrne, who had a stroke last year. The vote came amid a campaign by a Sun-Times gossip columnist who once worked for Byrne to name a city landmark after the former mayor.
At one point, Byrne lived across the street from what will become Jane M. Byrne Plaza, and family members have said her great grandfather resided in the vicinity around the time of the Great Chicago Fire.
With the junction renaming, Byrne joins Bishop Louis Henry Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jane Addams and others in the honorary pantheon with names attached to parts of the area interstate expressway and tollway system.
It remains to be seen whether shorthand such as “the Byrne” or “the Janie” embeds itself in the Chicago vernacular the way “the Ike” and “the Stevenson” have largely replaced the official numeric expressway designations I-290 and I-55 in many longtime residents' minds.
Perhaps Byrne hopes it won't stick, given the disdain many locals have for the junction thanks to its confusing layout and the often hideous traffic congestion that builds up there. The Federal Highway Administration regularly names the Circle to its list of worst choke points nationwide.
On Friday, the re-election seeking Democratic governor used the naming ceremony to talk up an ongoing multi-year $420 million reconstruction of the interchange that he says will reduce the delays.
“Everywhere people come into Chicago on this mighty road, this interchange we are now working on with a four-year project to unsnarl the bottlenecks to make sure it is a 21st century road that enhances safety, reduces congestion, reduces emissions,” he said. “It’s a very, very important place in America where people come together, and I can’t think of a better place named after a great mayor than the Jane Byrne Interchange.”
Byrne’s rise in politics was somewhat improbable. She was commissioner of the relatively obscure Department of Consumer Affairs under then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. But she was fired by his successor, Michael Bilandic, and decided to take on the regular Democrat in the primary — with the remnants of Daley’s old machine opposing her.
Bilandic’s reputation for being bland but mostly capable got buried along with many Chicagoans’ cars when a series of January 1979 snowstorms brought the city to a halt. Byrne narrowly defeated him and went on to handily win the general election.
After she was elected, she made peace with many of her former political foes, avoiding the kind of strife that greeted Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor. Byrne’s tenure has received mixed reviews.
In addition to Taste and other music festivals, Byrne has been credited with getting started the construction of “L” lines to the city's two airports, promoting local movie filming, envisioning the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the Museum Campus, and banning handguns in Chicago.
But her tenure was not without controversy, most notably labor strife that manifested itself in the form of teachers, CTA and firefighters strikes. She is perhaps best known for moving into the Cabrini Green housing project for three weeks in 1981 to try to address violence in the city.
After the ceremony, Byrne focused on the city’s future rather than her political history. “My time as mayor is gone, and this is the start of a whole new concept,” she said. “And I think the coming together in the city of Chicago is what will make it great. And it will be fine.”
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