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"A Prayer for the City"

This weekend I read "A Prayer for the City" by Buzz Bissinger (who, as H.G. Bissinger, also wrote best-selling "Friday Night Lights", leading to the movie and the TV series). It is an account of Ed Rendell's first term (1992-1995) as mayor of Philadelphia. I first learned about the book when I read a profile about his former Chief of Staff David L. Cohen in Philadelphia Magazine ("David L, explained", November 2009). I am sure the book must be quite well-known around here, but since I was not even in the States - let alone in Pennsylvania - when it was first published in 1997, I managed not to be aware of it for all these years.

I love nonfiction books that make you feel you're sitting in the room with the protagonists and follow their every move second by second, especially when there is an element of public service or greater good involved: "All the president's men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, "All too human" by George Stephanopoulos, "Hope in the unseen" by Ron Suskind. "A Prayer for the City" is in the same vein and provides a gripping picture of not only Rendell as mayor but also of the condition of Philadelphia in the early 1990s.

I loved the book, but as someone who lives close enough from Philadelphia, I will say the book left me with a very, very bleak picture of the city. I understand the facts described took place fifteen years ago; besides, New York City used to be a very unsafe place to live in in the early 1990s and has much improved, so one can't really judge Philadelphia today by how it was during the first half of the Rendell administration. But the book is very depressing. The review states: "It doesn't end with the eradication of the city's many social ills, but it does end with a second term, and with hope." Sure, Bissinger tells us toward the end of the book that Rendell has improved Philadelphia, although he is short on details, but what he shows over and over again is a city faced with terrible and senseless violence.

What I will remember most from the book is the litany of tragic deaths Bissinger mentions (some having taken place before Rendell became mayor), such as the murders of Sean Daily, son of a then Philadelphia police officer, who was tortured and beaten to death at age 17 for no reason by a gang of angry teenagers in May 1989, and of Robert Janke, a pre-med student who had just arrived to the city in August 1991 and called a friend from a pay phone in the wee hours of the morning after locking himself out (he was robbed of $5 by three teenagers roaming around looking for trouble and then shot in the head, execution-style). Oh, and the city employee who wanted to live in Philadelphia so badly but is forced to move because of safety concerns and ends up in Chestnut Hill, supposedly one of the nice neighborhoods in the city, is mugged in broad daylight as she is waiting for the train on the platform one morning shortly after rush hour. (Apparently, you don't want to be waiting on the platform, even during your morning commute. You want to wait in the waiting room with all the other people.)

And the Philadelphia Housing Authority! "By 1992, the vacancy rate at the housing authority, the fourth largest in the country, had climbed to 20 percent while the waiting list had grown to at least thirteen thousand applicants." (p.188) In fact, it took about four years and a half to reoccupy a vacant unit. Besides, "in a random inspection of eighty-seven units, eighty-six had failed HUD's standards for safe and sanitary housing. Each unit inspected averaged eleven violations." The story of the one-year-old who was permanently scarred by radiators that "raged with such heat 365 days a year that [the tenant] could put a pot of water on top of them and literally boil eggs" (p.189) was heart-breaking.

And the unions! It took three people to change a lightbulb at Philadelphia International Airport: "a building mechanic to remove the cover of the light panel, an electrician to actually replace the fluorescent-light fixture, and a custodian to clean up any dust or debris that might fall to the floor during the light-changing ritual." (p.113, paperback edition) What about cleaning city walls? (p.113-4) You also want to read the story of the leaked memo and of the "programmer for the Revenue Department who was dismissed by the city after his six-month probationary period because he repeatedly left work to play pinball and video games at local arcades" whose union fought the city in court on the grounds that his "preference for arcade games was a gambling addiction and therefore should be treated as a handicap": after the city won (following about three years of hearings), "the employee went to work for the city's Board of Pensions and Retirement." (p.113) Of course.

I thought the book was very positive about Rendell up until the last quarter, when the journalist shows Rendell becoming, shall we say, quite cranky when he's got too many things scheduled. On p.295, Bissinger quotes an excerpt of a letter the Philadelphia Inquirer's city editor, David Tucker, wrote to Rendell: "Thank you for apologizing to Amy Rosenberg today for having grabbed her neck yesterday afternoon in reaction to questions she was asking you in City Hall. [...] We regard it as absolutely inappropriate to grab an individual's neck, whatever the provocation."

And the 6-year-old Michelle Cutner who was killed in the crossfire of a gun battle! And the scandal of the 911 operators who didn't dispatch a police car for 40 minutes after the first call of panicked witnesses, leaving a 16-year-old boy dead, beaten to death by an angry mob "bent on revenge for what turned out to be a bogus claim of rape" (p.323-324)! And all the dreadful statistics about the middle class leaving Philadelphia for the suburbs! And the subpar public schools! And the city wages tax!

Bissinger mentioned here and there that Rendell was sometimes viewed as "Center City's mayor", being more preoccupied in making the historic part of Philadelphia attractive for well-heeled residents and tourists alike, for instance with the Avenue of the Arts (created in 1993 to "coordinate, oversee and encourage the development of Philadelphia's rich art district", according to its website), but there is no space in the book spent describing Rendell at work on those projects. 

All in all, I didn't feel the book conveyed much hope for the city, although Rendell was portrayed in a mostly positive light and certainly did his best to resurrect Philadelphia. But "A Prayer for the City" remains an excellent book, which tells a sobering story of local politics and urban America.


Sounds like an interesting read. Sudhir Venkatesh's Off the Books is the best ground-level account I've encountered of day-to-day life among the urban poor [Chicago].

Thanks for the recommendation, Dylan!

Oh...heh...Sudhir Venkatesh...the 10,000 foot view of his experience is actually covered in Freakonomics (which I read...which was far more spectacular than Outliers).

As for Philly...'s certainly no New York, that's for sure. And it smells.

But it's close by. And it's been the metro hub for me for...well...all my life in America so far. So I'm a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan. And heck, they train at Lehigh!

Hi, Ilya! Thanks for posting! I realized after reading your comment about "Freakonomics" that Venkatesh is the person who wrote "Gang leader for a Day" - I've seen the book in stores. I haven't read it but I think it was a best-seller for a while and received excellent reviews. I didn't know about "Off the Books". That should make for interesting reading.

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