We have all heard the expressions “it sounded like a good idea at the time” and “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Both of those sayings can certainly be applied to the city of Chicago’s efforts to establish the Chicago Housing Authority in 1937 to provide housing for its low income families.
This noble effort initially seemed to work with the construction of low-rise complexes occupied by racially diverse tenants in both black and white areas of the city.
However, that whole policy changed after World War II, with the mass migration of African Americans from the southern United States seeking greater employment opportunities in Chicago.
Beginning in 1955, presumably at the initiation of then-mayor Richard J. Daley and his city council of mostly white aldermen, public housing — consisting of high-rise towers — was constructed in superblocks on the margins of black neighborhoods to contain the growing populations.
With their ominous, looming towers, these projects became the infamous, ghettoized Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green.
Located but just a scant mile west of the Gold Coast, Cabrini was known for gang killings, and in 1970 it was where two police officers were murdered.
The project is at the center of “Her Honor Jane Byrne,” a recent play at Lookingglass Theatre written and directed by J. Nicole Brooks.
Christine Mary Dunford is a dead-ringer both in attitude and looks for Chicago’s first female mayor, Jane Byrne. The action focuses on her bold decision in March 1981 to move into a Cabrini-Green apartment as part of her commitment to make the projects safer.
Byrne is accompanied by her husband, Jay McMullen (Frank Nall), under the watchful eyes of Police Superintendent Richard Brzczek (Josh Odor) and 1st Ward Ald. Fred Roti (Thomas J. Cox), and recorded by a young journalist portrayed by Tracy Walsh.
She is confronted by a number of angry and disgruntled tenants who, while continuing to complain about their living conditions and treatment by the police, see her endeavor as a political stunt,
These include Taron Patton playing the combative activist Marion Stamps, Robert Cornelius as the book-selling, drug -dealing Black Che, Nicole Michelle Haskins as Tiger, an antagonistic young woman, Willie Round as the bike-riding, ill fated “kid,” and Renee Lockett as Mabel Foley.
As history and the play notes, Byrne unceremoniously left after 20 days when, even though she had come to celebrate Easter Sunday with treats for the children, she was confronted by a group of protestors that resulted in mass arrests.
Although Byrne was ridiculed and accused of using the incident for political purposes, Dunford’s performance of the late mayor is most sympathetic and demonstrated by her frustration and disappointment, clearly indicating her desires to improve the situation were genuine.
So too are the attitudes, expressed by the residents, that even though they were living in an environment filled with occasions of violence and crime, they would be reluctant to leave what they have always known as their home, where they had found love and lasting relationships and, most importantly, family.
So, it should not have been surprising that when the last of the buildings came down in 2011, it was met by angry protests from the displaced occupants.
This was an excellent production with exceptional writing, direction and acting that gave an accurate picture of the personalities and the times involved.
Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the show had to be shut down. But, if it comes again, as I am sure it will, it should not be missed.
In any event, Brooks’ play gives an incentive for every concerned Chicagoan to take a look at the current state of public housing in the city.
There have been many changes through the years, too many to note here, but we should be aware the CHA still serves more than 15,000 Chicago households.
Through a federally funded voucher program, it helps families rent homes in every one Chicago’s 77 community areas.
If you’re curious about the long and legally complicated history of public housing, I recommend you visit Illinois Legal Aid Online’s page on the topic.
While we are on the topic of bold plans, credit goes to Theater Wit for its plan to offer remote online viewing of its new show, “Teenage Dick” through April 19. It will stream via Vimeo to 98 patrons each night who pay $28 for a “ticket.”
The show by Mike Lew gives the disabled community its “first true antihero.”
I’ll be reviewing “Teenage Dick” in this space and will try to keep readers updated on the many ways to enjoy glorious live entertainment while keeping our social distance. Stay healthy.