Bissinger's 'A Prayer for the City' - Philadelphia seen fighting to stay alive

January 11, 1998|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,Sun Staff

"A Prayer for The City: The True Story of a Mayor and Five Heroes in a Race Against Time," by Buzz Bissinger. 402 pages. $24.95.

The Philadelphia that Mayor Edward G. Rendell inherits in January 1992 is coming apart at the seams. Actually, there are no seams, only great gushing wounds. Mortal wounds, it is feared.

The city has just enough money left in its piggybank to pay the bills for about a week and a half, and the budget deficit is headed toward an astounding $1.246 billion in five years if nothing is done. (The short-run shortfall is $250 million for starters.)

Philadelphia's municipal debt rating has become the first in the country to sink to "junk-bond status." And then there is the bumper-to-bumper line of jobs leaving the city.

The two-term tenure of W. Wilson Goode - famed for becoming the only U.S. mayor to bomb his own city - has left the city in complete disarray.

Crime is more wicked and vicious and random than ever. Race war seems imminent. And Congress is hanging the sword of base closure over the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

The only thing between the City of Brotherly Love and disaster is former District Attorney Rendell, a profane, paunchy, impulsive, intelligent and passionate man.

How "Fast Eddie," with his whispered reputation for womanizing, corner-cutting and fits of temper, becomes "America's Mayor," in the words of Vice President Al Gore, is nothing short of the stuff of fiction. But in this case, the story is true.

As far as it goes.

Journalist H. G. "Buzz" Bissinger spent five years shadowing Rendell and delving into the psyche of an ailing Philadelphia. The result, "A Prayer for the City," is an impressive study of urban psychosis and an ambitious but less satisfying look inside the machinations of the mayor's office.

In his preface, Bissinger, a Pulitzer-Prize winner and former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes of the deep sorrow he felt when he looked at the crumbling rowhouses, drug corners and abandoned factories of his once-proud Philadelphia. Why, he wanted to know, had this happened? Could anything be done?

He answers the first question brilliantly, detailing with the precision of a grand-jury indictment the economic vicissitudes and deliberate social policies that led to the decline of America's manufacturing cities. The villians are many and Bissinger lays them bare.

The second question proves tougher. It is, in essence, what propels Ed Rendell, chief of staff David L. Cohen, and the very book itself.

"The frustration out there and the hopelessness out there is enormous. Of all the emotions out there, lack of hope is the most tantamount. If we don't do something about that cities are going to burn," Rendell tells Sen. Robert Dole's deputy chief of staff after one particularly frustrating round with Congress.

Bissinger hits some high notes as the city practices alchemy with the budget, wrests some - but not enough - control from rapacious municipal unions and fights for the life of the naval yard. (Will the German industrialist build his ships in Philadelphia in spite of the stupid governor or will petty politics prevail, again?)

Each crisis is a high-wire act and in dealing with the madness of the moment, Rendell is beating back the barbarians (and winning accolades from the national media). But just as it looks like the Good Guys are about to win one, the Forces of Darkness sweep down upon the city. It's one step forward, two steps back, danced to a doomsday beat.

The city is the real star of this book, and Bissinger is, in fact, at his best when writing about its victims and its saviors. These people - the scrappy prosecutor, the determined city dweller finally chased away by crime, the shipyard worker out of work - are honest and true, their lives palpably full of hope and pain.

Rendell is another story.

FTC For all of the author's access, the portrait of the mayor that emerges is two-dimensional. The inside moments - poignant, maddening and even hilarious - are just moments, retold in the dispassionate prose of the newspaperman.

Why does this man do the things he does? How does he really feel about himself, his family, his city? Does he have a vision to carry the city forward, beyond solving the crisis of the moment? Bissinger walks to the edge of answers but then backs away.

Bissinger acknowledges that he came to like and respect Rendell and Cohen, a lawyer whom he all but canonizes. He devotes a chapter to Rendell's legendary "inappropriate conduct" - outbursts of temper, highly publicized sexual remarks made to a magazine writer - but he pulls his punches, leaving the reader to wonder: What else happened behind closed doors?

Bissinger liked his subjects less in "Friday Night Lights," his devastatingly accurate dissection of Texas high school football, and the result was a ground-breaking book.

"A Prayer" is damn good and at times great - a must-read for anyone who cares about America's cities. But like a play cut short at intermission - it ends as Rendell begins his second term and Cohen exits stage left for private law practice - the work feels incomplete.

Debbie M. Price is a reporter for The Sun. During the 1980s, she lived in Philadelphia and worked for the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered the 1985 MOVE confrontation and one of Rendell's unsuccessful mayoral bids.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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