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A Prayer For The City (1998)

A Prayer for the City (1998)

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4.14 of 5 Votes: 5
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0679744940 (ISBN13: 9780679744948)

About book A Prayer For The City (1998)

If you loved the West Wing TV series, there are good chances that you’ll like this book. The author somehow finagled permission to be a fly on the wall during the Ed Rendell’s first term as Philadelphia’s Mayor (1992 – 1995), embedding himself in the Chief of Staff’s office, sitting in the shadows during executive meetings, even listening outside the door during tense confidential negotiations over navy yard reuse proposals. Readers are granted shockingly unfettered access to the internal workings of city government at the highest level – we are spectators at the Administration’s finest hours and most cringe-worthy stumbles. I’m still amazed at what Bissinger was allowed to witness. What makes the narrative even more interesting is that the 1990s was a pivotal turning point for American cities, in a way that some guessed at in the moment but really became apparent only a decade or so later. White flight, the crack epidemic, race riots, Cabrini Green-like public housing projects, and de-industrialization had culminated in horrific conditions that left cities broke, crime-ridden, and plagued with poverty-related issues. Everything peaked in the 1990s: Administrations that realized that they were the last, best chance to “save a dying and obsolete city” took radical measures, capitalized on the economic boom of the 1990s, and entered the 21st century with enough economic momentum and attractive assets to lure in urbanophile Millennials. (See: Philadelphia, thanks to Rendell). The alternative was complete collapse of the city, following by the total implosion of the economy in nearby suburbs (see: Detroit. Gary. Flint). So not only does A Prayer for The City deliver a fascinating insider view, but what we’re watching is a desperate Administration try everything it can think of to pull a City back from the brink. “We’re shameless,” the Chief of Staff told the author. “We’ll play every card.”The book offers thoughtful, poignant portraits of two men - Mayor Ed Rendell and his Chief of Staff, David Cohen – and in so doing, it offers insights into what it takes in terms of temperament and time allocation to excel at those jobs. We vote for Mayors, but do we actually know what they do, what they can do, to “create change”? Bissinger makes a compelling case that one of the Mayor’s key contributions was his relentless cheerleading: Rendell’s optimism “changed the entire feel of the city, to the point where the perpetual focus wasn’t on the litany of problems, but on what maybe, just maybe, could be done. As if by constantly talking about all that might be coming and planning for it as if it were already here, it somehow was already here. In a way, he wasn’t America’s Mayor but America’s first publicly elected cult leader, winning hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands on the basis of blind faith.” Even if he did have to do it by wrestling with six-foot pig mascots to promote a local hot dog business, or undertake any number of ridiculous shticks to market the city as an entertainment destination for suburbanites with money to burn. (Of course, I also ate up the fact that both my employer and my boss were mentioned by name in the section about the 5-year financial plan that brought city government back from near-bankruptcy. “A manifesto for dramatic and radical and unprecedented change in an American city” – yeah, I think I’ll tell my Mom that that’s what I do for a living.) My only reservation is that the narrative flow can feel like learning to drive a manual transmission – the adrenaline rush of union stand-downs and navy yard sale negotiations screech to a halt for a profile of a Philadelphia resident. I understand that the author included these profiles to give the reader a visceral image of the people whose lives hang in the balance, people like a soon-to-be laid-off welder, an African-American grandma raising her great grandkids in a crack neighborhood, a yuppie couple who are driven from their Center City townhouse after one too many violent crimes, etc. It’s all good content, it’s just awkwardly shoe-horned into the Rendall Administration story in a way that’s distracting at best and deflating at worst. All in all, I can’t believe this isn’t standard reading among urbanists.

" . . . he understood exactly what a city was about -- sounds and sights and smells, all the different senses, held together by the spontaneity of choreography, each day, each hour, each minute different from the previous one."Oh, the city, the city! I am an urban person. I lived in the suburbs for years and it was hell. You couldn't walk anywhere because there were no sidewalks. There was too much "new". There was too much alike. Your neighbors were just like you. When I drove into the city, the moment I saw the skyline, the outline of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center reaching for the clouds, my heart would lift and I would begin to feel alive again. If I have any regret about moving back, it's that I waited too long to do so.Ed Rendell loves Philadelphia. The two-term mayor took a dying city and tried desperately to resuscitate it. And Bissinger was there. In an extraordinary act of transparency, the Rendell administration gave the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist nearly unfettered access to the mayor and his staff. He was present at meetings public and private, he read documents and correspondence, he interviewed everyone. Mingled with the story of City Hall are the stories of four city residents: a shipyard worker, a grandmother raising her children's children and their children, a policy wonk and a "true believer" prosecutor. They, too, all love the city, and each is subjected to its traumas. Prosecutor McGovern and policy analyst Morrison had options. They could leave for the suburbs, not worry about crime in their neighborhoods or bad schools for their kids. Unemployed welders and inner city moms don't have the same options, and sometimes your love of place makes you want to stay. After all, "there may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."When he was sworn in, Rendell had a fight on his hands. The city was losing population, jobs, and industry. Nobody cared. Not the feds. Not the state. He had to make them care. There is the story of the Navy Shipyard, one of the biggest employers in the city for, literally, centuries. For years, it was threatened with being shut down, and, finally, the shutdown came. But a German shipbuilder had a vision, a vision to take the shipyard and turn it into a place that served the burgeoning cruise ship industry. Rendell fought to make that happen. He worked on financing and tax incentives. He went to the State House and he went to the White House. He called in favors and friends. Even when the Governor killed the deal, insulting and humiliating the potential buyer until he said "to hell with you", Rendell kept trying. This is one roller-coaster of a chapter!This is no whitewash of Rendell. Bissinger doesn't shirk from describing the mayor's temper tantrums, his inappropriate behavior towards women reporters, his failures to connect with the African-American community, his egotism. But the picture we have of Rendell as his first term draws to a close is that of a lover who takes his beloved to shows and buys her pretty things, but knows that that, like flowers on an expressway berm, is merely window dressing. It is her heart and soul that matter most, and he will do anything to save her.This page-turner of a book will uplift you, and it will break your heart.Suggested further reading:The Death and Life of Great American CitiesBoss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

Do You like book A Prayer For The City (1998)?

An intimate portrait of philadelphia from 1989-1993, the first term of the Rendell administration. Bissinger covers the experience of Philadelphians from center city to north philly, the navy yard to Chestnut Hill, tracking with Rendell's first-term challenges as examples of the common plight of post-industrial American cities. One upshot is that 20 years later it seems like Rendell's first term represented the nadir of those crises. The industrial jobs never came back, but the tourist industry has grown significantly -- something newer residents may not believe, given the awful state of much of the Riverfront along the Delaware (just read this book as a comparison if you don't believe me). Bissinger doesn't say much about the universities or the hospitals as centers of job creation (for both skilled and unskilled labor) and drawers of talent, which makes me wonder how much equity those institutions represented back then compared to today. Then there is the rise of Comcast, the much smaller but growing footprint of the casinos...So the urban drain has slowed, but still the poor are always with us. Between the 2000 and 2010 census the median household income for Philadelphians dropped by 15% -- a story picked up in part (the fishtown/Kensington part) by Charles Murray in his 2012 book Coming Apart.
—John Alexander

I read this at the same time I was watching the first two seasons of "The Wire" from HBO. Both of them tell stories about post-industrial cities struggling to find a life-line into the 21st century. A friend of mine assured me the other day that the City will be reborn in the 21st century but I'm not quite so sure. As I live in Milwaukee and see all the problems a City like this faces, it becomes quite daunting.I think Ed Rendell can be categorized as one of those hero-humans who does the best he can in a bad situation. That's all anyone can ask. Right?
—Dan Bostrom

I decided to read this because I don't know much about city-level politics, even less than I know about other types of politics. The author, Buzz Bissinger, spent four years--1992-1995, an entire term in office--following around Ed Rendell and David Cohen, the mayor and chief of staff of Philadelphia. It's a book about Rendell, about his massive and at times almost unbearably painful struggle to rescue his city before it capsized, but it's also a book about Philadelphia and the larger subject of cities and urban culture.I have to say, sometimes nonfiction can be a bitch to read, not because it's boring or dry, but because when bad things happen they are true. Despite the fact that Rendell made massive moves forward during his first term as mayor, the message of this book seems to be this: Cities are awesome, and also, they are dying. The middle class is fleeing, the tax base is dropping, the economic gaps are spreading, and most people don't seem to care. For every step forward, more jobs are lost and more people die, and it begins to feel less like a natural life cycle than like decay. And somehow, even though I love being in non-city places, this breaks my heart.

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