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a remarkable and incisive book about urban dilemmas,
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This review is from: A Prayer for the City (Paperback)
In many ways, Buzz Bissinger's "A Prayer for the City" is one of the most remarkable books ever written about an American city.
In stark and sometimes shocking detail, Bissinger lays out the crises assailing the modern urban core: violence, poverty, economic development, poor public educational systems and so on. What's truly wonderful about Bissinger's book is that he leaves so many questions open. He isn't shallow or dismissive about these urban dilemmas; Bissinger doesn't give pat answers or bromides about how these problems can be solved.
And that's a remarkable achievement on the author's part, particularly given the manner in which he structures this book. Though he sketches the lives of several Philadelphia citizens, there are undeniably two central characters in this book: Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and his Chief of Staff David Cohen. In some ways -- and I think Bissinger purposefully and effectively conveys this image - Rendell and Cohen should be seen as two sides of the same coin.
Both Rendell and Cohen possess essential characteristics that will be needed in the fight to save the city, but the skills of each are different and, as such, they need each other to do what must be done. Rendell is the affable, easy-mannered, though sometimes short-tempered old politician who is out front. Cohen is the workaholic lawyer whose ruthless attention to the minutiae and detail of public policy brings him 17-hour days and little public glory. The highly public role Rendell plays is layed out in one particularly moving section toward the beginning of the book. Bissinger details a funereal November, 1994 car ride that Rendell took to a city hospital where a police patrolman who had been shot was being treated. Bissinger describes Rendell's interaction with the policeman's family, as well as his palpable anger that a patrolman could be so senselessly cut down in the line of duty. In moving language, Bissinger shows the depth of the problem confronting Rendell and Cohen.
In addition to the generic problems besetting Philadelphia, Bissinger also details those specific to Pennsylvania's largest city. Throughout the book, Bissinger writes of Rendell's and Cohen's attempts to save the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard from closure by the U.S. Department of the Navy. The story of the struggle for the shipyard, which means the difference between Philadelphia losing or keeping thousands of crucial jobs, provides a penetrating insight into how the municipal and federal governments often move in disparate directions, and how that can have staggering consequences for the local level.
Bissinger's tone in this book is somber, without veering into the maudlin. The author provides great detail about urban problems, but not in a voyeuristic or exploitative way. Though he is clearly rooting for Rendell, Bissinger does not become fawning or mawkish. Indeed, Bissinger's reporting is impeccable, due no doubt to the wide-open access to Rendell he was clearly granted. Primarily, "A Prayer for the City" succeeds because Bissinger set out to tell a great story, and that essential goal is something that far too many journalistic treatments miss these days.