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Water Tower park to be renamed for Jane Byrne

The plaza where the old Chicago Water Tower sits is a place where residents and shoppers briskly walk through and where tourists stop to hop in horse-drawn carriages. But it holds a special place for Chicago’s first and only female mayor, Jane Byrne.

The plaza may soon bear Byrne’s name as politicians considered a number of proposals to honor Byrne. The City Council Finance Committee on Tuesday advanced a proposal to honor Byrne by naming Water Tower plaza after her.

The Water Tower was inspirational to the former mayor, who often looked out her kitchen window to see the tower across the street, Byrne’s daughter Kathy said after testifying Tuesday at City Hall.

“Whether it was—it’s funny these things are all still revolving—but if it was a budget crisis or if it was a looming school strike, she could look out and see that Water Tower and she would say, ‘Well you survived the fire so whatever we’re going through now, we’ll get through,’” Kathy Byrne said.

She also requested Byrne’s favorite monument, which she dedicated to the children of Chicago during her tenure, be relocated to the Water Tower plaza. The Children’s Fountain, which was once located on Wacker Drive, now is in Lincoln Park.

A dedication in her honor would “correct what many believe is a long overdue failure to honor one of Chicago’s most significant political figures and the only woman to ever serve as mayor of Chicago,” said Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who floated a number of proposals to honor Byrne.

Mayor Emanuel backed renaming the plaza for Byrne, calling her an iconic figure.

“As Mayor, Jane Byrne didn’t just blaze a new trail for women in politics. She blazed a new trail forward to a better future for the entire City of Chicago,” he said in a statement. “It will serve as a fitting tribute to her lasting legacy.”

The one-term mayor served from 1979 to 1983 after Michael Bilandic and before Harold Washington at a time before many Millennials were even born.

They have Byrne to thank for many festivals and amenities still around today. “My mother is honored every day in this city because of the many things that she originated and that people may not be aware that she originated,” her daughter said during the finance committee hearing.

If they’ve feasted at the Taste of Chicago, they have Byrne to thank for helping to start the Grant Park food festival in 1980, her daughter said, offering a list of her mother's ideas and accomplishments.

If they’ve taken the train to Midway or O’Hare, they can nod in appreciation to Byrne. She proposed the Orange Line in 1980 and pushed for the Blue Line extension.

If they’ve ever gone to Navy Pier with out-of-town guests, it was Byrne who helped spearhead its revival into a popular tourist attraction.

If they’ve walked to Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium or Field Museum without having to cross traffic, it was Byrne who proposed the idea of creating a continuous museum campus.

If they’ve seen the “Blues Brothers,” it was Byrne who was instrumental in promoting movie filming in Chicago.

“Those were all Jane Byrne’s ideas and things that have continued for decades and have brought much joy and in fact are simply a part of the fabric of the city so that you don’t even know that they didn’t used to be here,” her daughter said.

“That is a wonderful honor for my mother to know that people have simply integrated the things she brought into their lives.”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) reflected on her impact on the Taste and gay community. “The gay community wouldn’t be where it’s at without Jane Byrne,” he said. “She was one crazy lady and we loved her for it.”

Byrne made another mark: She was the first mayor in Chicago to march in Chicago's Pride parade.

But her single term was not without controversy, most notably labor strife that manifested itself in the form of teachers, CTA and firefighters’ strikes. And she briefly moved into the now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing project in 1981 to draw attention to the violence.

Her daughter said Byrne, now 80, is doing well. “She’s very stable health-wise considering she had a stroke last year,” she said.

The proposal to rename the Water Tower plaza will go to the City Council for approval on Wednesday.

Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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