Playwright-actor-director J. Nicole Brooks wasn’t yet in kindergarten when Mayor Jane Byrne did the unthinkable and moved into the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Still, the precocious preschooler was a savvy student of the world around the Washington Park home where she grew up, kitty-corner to the Robert Taylor Homes.
The massive, blocky buildings piqued her preschool curiosity. “I remember asking my mom once, ‘What are those big buildings over there?”’ she recalls. “She told me ‘Those are projects. A white man wanted to stack a bunch of [N-word plural] on top of each other and see how long before they killed each other.’ I didn’t know a lot about the Cabrini,” Brooks adds. “But I knew there were no white people there.”
With Her Honor Jane Byrne, Brooks goes headlong into the history of the white woman who famously moved into Cabrini for three weeks in 1981, purportedly to fight crime. The first of four Chicago plays Brooks plans to write, Her Honor follows Byrne’s highly publicized public housing immersion. Her presence, Byrne insisted, could help lower the crime rate in a community that had long been—at least for those who didn’t live there—shorthand for unchecked violence and abject poverty. It would also help her understand how to fix the problems of a crime-infested slum that had become a national embarrassment for Chicago.
Cabrini was a hot topic when Byrne took office in 1979, but the neighborhood—bounded by North and Clybourn Avenues to the north, Chicago Avenue on the south, Larrabee on the east, and Halsted on the west—had been branded as the worst-of-the-worst in city living for over a century.
In the 1880s, the neighborhood was known as “Little Hell” because fires from the nearby Goose Island steel mills and gasworks made the skies perpetually flame-colored. Poverty among its earlier residents—mostly Irish and later Italian immigrants—contributed to a crime rate among the worst in the city.
“It was fucked up in 1888. It was fucked up in 1988,” says Brooks. “In 2018, you wouldn’t even know it existed because the buildings are gone and history books sure as shit don’t teach you about it. There’s an erasure of poor people in Chicago history. With the play, I wanted to help stop that erasure.”
Cabrini went up over 20 years, beginning with 586 units in 1942. The final construction in 1962 left the project with 3,607 units. At its peak, between 15,000 and 20,000 people called Cabrini home. Definitive numbers are impossible to find because many people lived there without ever signing a lease.
After snipers killed two cops in 1970, the police largely checked out of Cabrini. Crime blatantly flourished. Open-air drug markets made procuring anything from weed to heroin as easy as picking up a pair of socks at Maxwell Street Market. Gangs dominated and turf wars raged right up until the high-rise buildings were demolished. By 2011, the vast majority of Cabrini was gone, the last residents evicted as well-heeled newcomers snapped up new six- and seven-figure condos built in its footprint.
Brooks watched Byrne’s adventure unfold on television. “I was too young to really understand the politics of it. I do remember all the adults, gathered around the TV, always talking. Saying it was a stunt. Saying she must be crazy.
“Of course it was a stunt. But she also wanted to do something about crime that was out of control. She left in less than a month. Does that make her a hypocrite? Maybe. Yes. I think it definitely makes her a Chicagoan,” she says.
Young as she was, Brooks was raised to pay attention to the world around her. Her mother and older brother read three newspapers a day, evening and morning editions. Her extended family included a cop whose beat covered Cabrini. She grew up a voracious reader who knew how to navigate a racist, segregated, complicated, and often contradictory city.
“My family was intensely interested in Chicago politics. I figured out early that politics impacts the way you live, so you have to pay attention,” she says. Geography lessons were twined into political lessons.
“For me as a kid, the invisible boundary was Garfield Boulevard. And you couldn’t go north of 55th by yourself,” she recalls. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, cross over to Robert Taylor and you’re gonna get killed.’ But people who lived in public housing centers, everybody there knew each other. If they didn’t know you, that’s when you might have a problem.
“Any time one of the kids from the projects came onto our block, that meant you had to be on defense. Sometimes you had to fight. I feel really shitty saying that. We’re all victims of institutionalized, racist housing policies. Yet here we were dividing ourselves again—saying, ‘Oh, those people over there, stay away from them.’
“What I started to notice was ‘those people’ were boxed in too. Those same invisible lines kept them in,” she says.
“Even as a little kid, I realized it was on purpose,” Brooks continues. “We’d go to science fairs or whatever and be like, ‘I barely made it here and these white schools have the resources of fucking NASA.’ I realized early on that equity ain’t equitable.”
It was a realization that fueled her art.
“Writing keeps me safe and sane, safe so I don’t hurt others, because this shit—racism, segregation—if I didn’t write I’d be out there hurling Molotov Cocktails. I still don’t feel comfortable in Bridgeport. I don’t feel comfortable in Evergreen Park. I don’t feel comfortable going to the theater in Jefferson Park because when I was growing up, those were dangerous places for me. If I don’t get behind my computer and try to have compassion and understanding then I think the shit could consume me,” she says.
Brooks was tough enough and smart enough to fend off the shit. She ignored the Carter School elementary teacher who told her she would never get into a performing arts high school. She graduated from the Marie Curie Metropolitan High School’s program in the performing arts and then earned a BFA from Northern Illinois University.
Her triple-hyphenate career (actor-director-playwright) has taken her across the globe and the country. She mined the history of Haiti with Fedra: Queen of Haiti, a 2009 Lookingglass production in which she also starred. She also won acclaim for her 2007 drama Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten, the story of Liberia’s civil war, seen through the eyes of women rebels. Her Honor Jane Byrne marks the first time she’s turned her pen to her hometown.
“I’m very proud of where I come from,” says Brooks. “I’m also not interested in letting people who aren’t from here build stories about Chicago.”
Byrne’s story is prime Chicago. The first female mayor of a major U.S. city, Byrne was swept into office by the legendary snowstorm of 1979, voted in by citizens furious that the city ground to a complete standstill when then-mayor Michael Bilandic couldn’t get the streets cleared.
Byrne won the vote but struggled to gain the support of the people surrounding her. Her move to Cabrini enraged then-police superintendent Richard Brzeczek and CHA Chair Charles Swibel (both characters in the play). She was repeatedly the target of vicious sexism. “I mean, she was attacked for her looks for fuck’s sake,” Brooks says.
Byrne was met with well-deserved skepticism from iconic Cabrini activist Marion Stamps (also a character in the play). Stamps had receipts to back her wariness. Byrne’s mentor was none other than Richard J. Daley—architect-in-chief for segregation in 20th-century Chicago. Daley oversaw the construction of the Robert Taylor Homes Brooks’s mother so vividly described. He also built a highway (the Dan Ryan) that effectively cut them off—along with much of the south side—from the rest of the city.
In June 1968, Daley basically shrugged as the west side burned down in the wake of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. (It would be almost 30 years before the burnt ruins were cleaned up—as prep for the 1996 Democratic National Convention.) Roughly two months later, Daley told the cops to “shoot to kill” activists protesting at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Throughout his mayoralty, redlining flourished, making Chicago one of the most racially divided cities in the country.
In Byrne, Daley the Elder found a cagey acolyte. Before she was the first female mayor of Chicago, Byrne was the only female member of Daley’s cabinet.
“You can’t talk about Harold Washington without talking about Byrne and you can’t talk about Byrne without talking about Daley,” Brooks says. “That’s why there’s four plays. This is the first in the saga.” The next three will focus on Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor and the man who ousted Byrne from office. The third will deal with the Daley dynasty, from Richard J. to Richard M. The final piece will take up the end of Rahm Emanuel and the rise of Lori Lightfoot.
“It’s like Marvel movies in that the same characters show up in each piece and they’re all connected,” Brooks says.
Byrne’s stay in Cabrini changed things—at least while she was there. Money for community programs poured in. Cops patrolled there again. Street lights got fixed, garbage picked up, potholes patched. There was talk of building a community center. Whatever Byrne sincerely hoped to achieve, there’s no denying the entire adventure was rooted in privilege.
“White people get to do that—to say ‘I’m going to move into this place to prove a point.’ You know who couldn’t do that? Martin Luther King Jr. If Dr. King or Jesse Jackson or Marion Stamps had said ‘I’m going to move to Sauganash or Elmwood Park to help end racism,’ well, they wouldn’t have said that because they’d have known it could never happen. Jane had skin privilege that allowed her to do things people of color couldn’t.”
In the end, Byrne’s effort didn’t make a lasting change.
“I think she probably got in there and realized it was way more complicated than she’d thought,” Brooks says. “There was a well-organized criminal network operating in Cabrini, and I’m not talking about the Gangster Disciples. I’m talking about [Alderman] Fred Roti and the Mob. It got a cut of everything. Byrne wasn’t going to change any of the history or get rid of the outfit.”
Byrne died in 2014. When people mention her now, it’s mostly in exasperation: the Jane Byrne Interchange is bumper-to-bumper standstill more often than not. Her Honor is a glimpse of a woman who is a vivid memory to many and ancient history to others.
“This play is a love letter to Chicago, but it’s also revenge against many years of hurt and frustration,” says Brooks. “I believe artists are the greatest warriors that we have. We can get into spaces in the most beautiful and insidious ways. That’s our superpower.” v