Thursday, December 09, 2004

Philadelphia Camelot? (A half-assed review of Buzz Bissinger's A Prayer for the City)

An old friend who re-appeared in my life a few months ago talked about campaigning for Ed Rendell's gubernatorial opponent a few years ago on the assumption that he was "just another corrupt pol from Philly." (Says a lot about how Central PA regards its urban neighbors to the East.) Then, I was reading a post-election Tom Ferrick column that attributed the Democratic trend in the Philly suburbs to the "Rendellphia" phenomenon. These catalysts inspired me to get around to finally reading A Prayer for the City, Buzz Bissinger's highly-regarded, all-access reportage on Rendell's first term as Philadelphia mayor.

This book was hot when it came out in 1997. Like fond reminiscences of the Clintion presidency, Prayer is now a relic of a period that inexorably limps from memory to mythology. Strangely, though, I think it's a more important lens for thinking about "our" town today. (I use that possessive loosely, just because I live in the suburbs and don't pay city wage taxes. Unfortunately, my love for Philadelphia is like the love you have for your parents...you want them to be close enough to spend time with them, but you don't want to live in their house anymore.)

What makes Bissinger's book great is not really the chronicle of America's most amazing political symbiotic partnership to the left of Bush-Rove, Rendell-Cohen. Certainly, they're the spice of the story, the icons of 90's Philadelphia that shaped the city's image of itself as much as Rizzo had for a previous generation. And speaking of that spice, I'd like to share the funniest passage you'll probably ever read in a political history. [Warning: strong language...don't click the "read the rest" link if you're offended by vulgarity.]
...when he discovered later that afternoon that the new issue of Philadelphia Magazine had quoted him as saying "Your magazine sucks the big wong," he barely seemed bothered. Most politicians, even if the quote had been correct, would have denied it to their dying day, but not Rendell. "Anybody who knows me knows that it has the ring of truth, so I'm cooked. If I had said 'Your magazine eats shit,' I could have denied it." (p. 243)

That, ladies and gentlemen, is an authentic Philadelphian.

No, the real heroes are the people trying to live and work in the city, trying to stay afloat or even give something back without nearly the same amount of glory and recognition... local community leaders, members of the criminal justice system, workers losing jobs to factory and shipyard closings, grandmothers raising their children's children. The story is told with a great blend of frankness and compassion. Although made of many pieces, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What emerges from the different strands of narrative is Bissinger's comprehensive synthesis of the past, present, and future of American cities. Philadelphia is just the case study.

I have a twisted fantasy that I could subliminally download certain books or experiences into the brains of elected officials. This book would be right at the top of my nomination list. I'm not asking for mind control here—I just want people with power who live far away from the places they have power over to have greater awareness of the effects of their actions. We need leaders in this country who actually care about ensuring the livability of cities. We can't afford to leave generations of youngsters to survive unsafe streets and unproductive schools. As a people, we shouldn't tolerate any politician of either party that doesn't care about the welfare of our nation's cities and their inhabitants. They can apply conservative or liberal principles to their prescriptions for governance, but if they can't even muster the concern to focus on the real problems that people face, shame on them. Cities like Philadelphia have paid the consequences for neglect or even outright hostility from the nation as a whole.

Wait a second, this was supposed to be a review. To that end, I'll state that not only is this a good book, it is a book good enough to read more than once. It's amazing how interesting good governance can be. (Is it because we so rarely see it?)

Prayer was even good enough to get little-ol' agnostic me to offer a prayer for the city:

Let us care about all the people. Amen.


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