A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

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