In new book, Philadelphia's Rendell offers few prayers for big cities, despite his success

March 30, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Philadelphia's Mayor Edward Rendell, taking office in the early '90s, was a kind of folk hero to believers in America's cities.

Quickly, he moved to shore up finances and save America's founding city from bankruptcy. He scrubbed City Hall (literally down on his knees cleaning one washroom). He brought energy and "reinvented" government to a demoralized bureaucracy. He fought hard to retain private sector jobs and find new ones. People nodded approvingly when Vice President Gore dubbed Ed Rendell "America's Mayor."

So it's all the stranger that Mr. Rendell now despairs for U.S. cities in general. And he's letting a new book about his years as mayor -- "A Prayer for the City" (Random House) by award-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger -- become a focus for speculation that the jig is up for urban America.

The Rendell-Bissinger pitch is that the glitz of renewal in Philadelphia and other cities of the '90s -- convention and arts centers, sports stadia, fatter municipal treasuries, safer streets -- masks inexorable poverty and decline underneath.

An urban fixer

His administration, says Mr. Rendell, fixed Philadelphia's bullet wound of gushing red ink. But it couldn't fix the city's persistent cancer of jobs and income-earning people flowing to the suburbs.

Mr. Bissinger writes that Philadelphia's poverty rate is as high as 30 percent overall, and up to 52 percent for children. The perception of high crime hasn't been ameliorated. Taxes remain high, notwithstanding Mr. Rendell's efforts, leaving Philadelphia quite uncompetitive with its suburbs. Economic change has ravaged Philadelphia's blue-collar work force, creating "a manufacturing mausoleum." Venal, backbiting politics, often race-tinged, plague the city.

To know Philadelphia is to know the bleak picture is correct -- though surely not the whole story of a grand, multifaceted American city.

Where real peril arises is Mr. Rendell's explicit suggestion that Philadelphia's plight tells the story for a big bunch of America's "most troubled" cities, among them Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, Washington and Miami.

Powerless feeling

That approach "turns people off, makes them feel powerless, helpless," says Marc Weiss, who served as chief policy adviser to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. "People figure," says Mr. Weiss: "If Rendell can't do it, no one can. It's very shortsighted on his part."

Indeed, a man with rare insight into our cities takes a view diametrically opposed to Mr. Rendell's. He's Paul Grogan, president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation that's mobilized billions of dollars for hard-hit city neighborhoods, first for housing, now increasingly for supermarkets and business development.

The community development movement, says Mr. Grogan, has registered prodigious growth across urban America, notwithstanding such enemies as drugs, depopulation and crime. There's evidence of a real retail renaissance in many cities. The '90s have witnessed dramatic, historic reductions in crime.

Like a Berlin Wall toppling, Mr. Grogan notes, over 100,000 grime- and crime-infected public housing units are being demolished, replaced by mixed-income communities. Welfare reform, for all its problems, is starting to substitute a culture of work for a culture of dependency. And a ferment of change -- charter, beacon, magnet, privatized schools -- is stirring underneath the massive bureaucracies of urban public education.

Ironically, it's on two of these issues Mr. Rendell, for all his achievements, can be seriously faulted. He's never lent his prestige to turn back the entrenched unions which continue to undermine meaningful school reform in Philadelphia.

Mr. Rendell kept Philadelphia distant from the dramatic police reforms and crime reductions of urban America in the '90s; only in early March did he relent by hiring as police commissioner a high-ranking officer from the highly successful New York City Police Department.

No suburban outreach

And despite his high personal popularity across the entire Philadelphia region, Mr. Rendell believes the suburbs are infected with racism and indifference and really don't care about Philadelphia. Forever the scrappy gladiator for his town, he's never emulated the collegial outreach to suburbs and their businesses made by such mayors as Chicago's Richard Daley and Detroit's Dennis Archer.

"Just saying you're competing with the suburbs, trying to beat 'em back, is a losing strategy," notes Mr. Weiss. "The suburbs need to see the city as a resource they invest in for their own benefit."

None of this is to say that Mr. Rendell hasn't fought his heart out, argued Philadelphia's case from boardrooms to the White House, as Mr. Bissinger's book makes clear.

A city's ills

Philadelphia's lot is also tougher because it's not getting the infusion of entrepreneurial talent and fresh energy that new immigrants to America are pumping into such cities as New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.

But neither Mr. Rendell nor Mr. Bissinger seems to grasp that today's urban leadership demands advanced skills: inventive collaborations, building regional alliances, outreach to neighborhoods, and sensitivity in such complex areas as police and schools. Flamboyant personal leadership and fighting for one's taxpayers are still important, and in them Mr. Rendell has few peers. But more is now needed.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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