Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger

A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger was really an excellent book focused on Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell and his Chief of Staff David Cohen during Rendell's first term in office from 1992 through 1996.

Bissinger is best-known for writing the best-selling Friday Night Lights and to write A Prayer for the City he was granted close access to Rendell and Cohen. In the preface to the book, Bissinger makes reference to admiring and learning how cities worked from The Power Broker by Robert Caro and from the first part of Caro's book that I read, I'd say A Prayer for the City compares well as Bissinger managed to provide a very human view of the workings and difficulties of a huge city along with a very personal story of two men trying mightily to preserve it against steep odds.

At the beginning of the book, Bissinger notes how Cohen served as Rendell's campaign manager during his winning 1991 mayoral bid, after losing first a bid for governor in 1986 and then mayor in 1987, and that Cohen took a huge pay cut leaving a law firm to become Rendell's right hand man. The job both men signed up for seems to almost have been like tilting at windmills with the multiple pressures facing Philadelphia, including homeowners and jobs leaving, heavy racial stratification and mistrust, and need to work with and get support from Federal and State lawmakers with their own problems as well as agendas.

Bissinger portrays how Rendell as mayor had his flaws, definitely impetuous and inappropriate at times, sometimes erratic, but above all, he cared, as did the tirelessly working on behalf of Rendell and the city Cohen. The message out of the book was that the two men did great work together and when they started his term, they calculated a five year budget deficit for the city of $1.246B if they stayed the course financially and a fair amount of the book is then about their efforts, ultimately successful, to get city unions to sign contracts that would make the budget work.

Even with these manageable city contracts in place, long hours put in and what certainly seemed to genuine best efforts on behalf of all citizens by both men, the city still seemed on a downward spiral like other huge American cities and also covered heavily in the book was the racial strife and bleak economic picture for many in the city and the closing of the the navy yard and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to keep it going.

It's a fascinating read of tireless efforts that didn't always lead to what was sought, but seemed to definitely make things better than they would have been had Rendell and Cohen not worked so hard and invested so much in the city.