Mayor Byrne's move to tenement: it's helping

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Will Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne's temporary move into a crime-ridden public housing project carry any lasting impact? That is the question most Chicagoans have been asking since the mayor announced her move March 22. While almost universally applauding her courage and determination, many have suggested that gang troublemakers in the Cabrini-Green housing project will only lie low during her stay or shift operations to another part of the city.

"I think she genuinely cares and wants to help, but that the impact will be temporary. The problems [she's trying to solve] are so deeply social," comments Dr. Milton Rakove, a University of Illinois political scientist who has long specialized in analyzing Chicago politics.

Mayor Byrne, who with her husband moved into a fourth-floor apartment in the project one week ago, views her mission as helping residents gain a sense of confidence about their personal security that will stay with them after she is gone. She concedes that much depends on how well residents continue to cooperate with the police, offering information on gang leaders and reporting threats and any signs of illegal weapons or drugs.

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Eleven people have been killed in the sprawling half-mile-square project just in the first three months of this year. Many residents have bee paying protection money to gangs and were afraid to say anything to police. By police estimates, the project may have as many as 2,000 gang sympathizers who store weapons or allow gang leaders to shoot from their windows.

Mayor Byrne has vowed to stay indefinitely -- until people can "look out of their windows and not worry about being shot." In her view, even where the solutions are not clear, progress is made by "determined people chipping away at an unmanageable problem until it is brought under control."

So far her stay at Cabrini-Green has been accompanied by a blitz of service improvements. As she often observes: "Where a mayor goes, everything tends to work better." Litter is being picked up. Long-abandoned cars are being towed away. Everything from potholes in the streets to nonworking elevators in project buildings are being repaired. A special 28-man police contingent patrols the project around the clock. It is hard to find a resident who hasn't noticed some change.

"I think we all feel freer to come and go," says Carolyn dodge, one of the few white residents of the project. "I see policemen everywhere I turn and I like it."

"I sleep better at night -- I don't hear gunshots anymore," says Cora Moore in describing the change. She says that while it used to be hard to get an elevator repairman in daytime if services broke down, now repairmen will even come at night. And police are more responsive to tenant calls for help -- "You used to call when shots were fired and no one would come." She also says she feels more secure when her son goes between home and school.

Stepped-up law-enforcement efforts have accompanied the service changes in hopes of routing troublemakers from the project. Police have searched vacant apartments for weapons, and a special federal taks force has been tracking the flow of illegal weapons at Cabrini as part of a wider crackdown on urban crime. A nearby police court on West Chicago Avenue has been reopened to handle the increased number of arrests. And the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has begun issuing the first of an estimated 800 evictions aimed at getting out those in trouble with the law and those who have not paid their rent.

"Overall, everything has been improving -- people are coming forward more in an effort to get the gangs and drugs out of here," says John Gill, security manager of Cabrini-Green.

But urbanologist Piere deVise is sharply critical of the CHA for what he says is a "deliberate" policy of admitting people into the Cabrini project who did not qualify in an effort to hasten its demolition. He says that housing authority officials realized they had made a "monumental mistake" in placing the project on prime real estate so close to Chicago's most affluent neighborhoods.

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