New housing for Mayor Byrne

Chicago's Mayor Jane Byrne had a feisty reply to the charge that her moving into a crime-ridden, low-income housing project is a political grandstand play: whoever thought so, she suggested, was welcome to move in next door. One adjoining apartment, however, will be occupied by the mayor's bodyguards. Their presence does not diminish what a black police leader said -- that making a home in the Cabrini-Green project "takes a lot of guts and courage, and I applaud her."

Some other black Chicagoans have been more cynical about Mayor Byrne's decision to join some 15,000 other residents, virtually all of them black, in the notorious complex of high-rises and row houses. But she is disarming criticism by starting to improve such Cabrini-Green services as police protection. The test will be whether city actions are sufficiently broad and lasting to revitalize the project and keep it from declining and finally being demolished like the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis to which it has been compared.

Meanwhile, the symbolism of the Byrne move could have a salutary effect. It dramatizes the need for maintaining security and services where the poor live as well as in affluent areas (like the one where the mayor has quarters just a short walk from her temporary new home). There is an instructive irony in the assumption that neglect will be checked with a mayor on the premises. She has given herself and her city a considerable challenge by declaring she intends to stay as long as it takes to "prove that those who live decently can live there."

Going to inspect their proposed apartment, the mayor's husband promptly got stuck in an elevator and then had to walk up. He said they might ask President Reagan to drop in for dinner and meet the neighbors. Why not? The more leaders know the people they are leading, the more effective they can be in meeting the people's needs. Mrs. Byrne paid several visits to Cabrini-Green before being prompted by the plight of the residents to make her extraordinary gesture. Its spirit ought to speak to officials far and wide.

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