Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Prayer for the City

A Prayer for the City, by Buzz Bissinger

" . . . 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.

Further suggested reading:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko

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