Saturday, March 03, 2012
A Prayer for the City
In his monograph A Prayer for the City, award-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger depicts Ed Rendell’s mayoral terms in office through the eyes of individuals living in Philadelphia. Each character confronts issues of politics, economic development, housing, and inner city distress through their own personal histories. Bissinger captures each while interweaving their lives with city’s policies and Randell’s efforts to remedy their circumstances. These thick descriptions of public problems are brought to life, as they are scene affecting the vary individual’s lives in which they are made to help. Although the origins of each problem are hard to define with precision, so too are the overlays in
For example, Bissineger first describes the life and work habits of David Cohen, a former corporate lawyer and Randell’s chief of staff. His first task and substantial obstacle in the office was to mend the fiscal stress of the large budget deficit. His personal dedication and commitment to the Randell administration not only assisted to create a stable budget, but also later developed into a budget surplus. In order to balance the budget, Cohen must negotiate with the city’s unions. This obstacle faced by the Randell administration is complex and multifaceted. Cohen and Rendell view the contracts with the city to provide public services too laced with personal benefits. Overcharged for the services, Cohen and Rendell feel citizens should spend less and receive more benefits. They work to lower the hourly wage and the benefits structure for the public workforce, which constitutes of primarily African Americans. The negotiations are laced with race relations, politics and budget constraints. They must work delicately in order not to disenfranchise a large sector of the city’s population, while increasing the public good. Finally with 20-hour working days, Cohen is able to negotiate a fair price with the unions. This early success predicates Cohen’s hard work and dedication to the Rendell administration.
Next, Bissineger describes Ed Randell as a charismatic popular lawyer with so-so university grades and an affective leadership style. The first description of his character is when he rushes into a hospital waiting room to assist a family in-need after a life threatening shooting on the streets. Randell holds the attention of a young boy while the doctors operate on his father. Bissineger illustrates Randell’s dedication with the explanations of his own father’s death at the age of eleven. Street violence is a reoccurring theme in the book, which envelops issues of poverty, white-flight, job loss and racial tension.
In order to highlight this racial tensions of the streets, Bissineger traces the life of Fifi Mazzccua, a widowed, grandmother whose son Tony was jailed for shooting someone, his wife on crack, and their son, Keith killed on the street, along with her additional grandchildren. Mazzccua’s faith and life are portrayed as she visits her son in jail, attends church where Randell knows the pastor, and manages the care taking of the rest of her family in a small apartment in the black side of town. Her life embodies those survivors of the streets, which offer little in way of jobs and public support.
Bissineger uses Assistant District Attorney Michael McGovern prosecution of urban violence like that of Robbie Burns’ murder to further depict the street life and crime in Philadelphia. The case, like many others, which McGovern litigated in his years of public service and others described in the book, captures race and poverty of street kids. Robbie Burns was white boy shot in the head by a group of black men when coming out of a convenience store one summer night. The public outcry that emerged from the particular episode engaged Rendell as he held a community meeting the following night at a public school’s gymnasium. Yet, countless cases like this forced McGovern to become desensitized by the endemic problems of black crime. He final decided to leave his job for the private sector and the city itself. He became another constituent of white flight because of crime, low paying city wages and his children’s raising college tuitions.
White flight emerges as another obstacle for Rendell. The loss of tax dollars by white residents fearing urban violence, race relations and crime, puck-up and leave the city for the suburbs. For which Bissineger describes a city financial analyst Linda Morrison’s history of migration into and later out of the city. Not only had this libertarian’s memos assisted to cut unnecessary expenditures and helped Cohen to start contracting out government services in her professional life. But Morrison’s personal life is also used to explain how the public housing unit near her urban residency dissuaded her from living in the city. After many sleepless nights, the birth of a son, and several shooting incidences, she moved to the periphery of the city and later with stolen tires and her car on blocks, pushed her to buy a home in the suburbs. Housing in the city was just another problem for Philly residence.
The public housing crisis hit Rendell’s term midway. The interaction to deal with the problem engaged Rendell to work with the US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros, which further described how local policy begins to confront the national government. The public housing problem’s originated from the reevaluation of the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) where red-lining was common place and blacks were disenfranchised from obtaining loans to purchase homes. Minorities primarily lived in public housing, which created race politics especially when they were managed poorly as was the case in Philly. The possible take over of the Pennsylvanian Housing Authority (PHA) by HUD created new tensions between Rendell and City Council President John Street, who ultimately replaced Randell as mayor. Housing discrimination followed race relations and poverty for many residents. Furthermore, Randell saw jobs as his key impediment and believed the creation of more jobs could to confront all other social ills together.
Randell’s experience with economic develop was described with the life history of Jim Magnan. A middle aged white American with six kids who worked in the city’s naval yards as a welder. The yard was closed after 195 years of operation under Randell’s time. Randell was able to negotiate additional work for the shipyard but ultimately failed to win over President Bill Clinton to persuade congress to sustain military contracts for the city. His only resolve was to try a new strategy. First to promote tourism in the city with the opening of the new convention center; next to create an enterprise zone for the city; finally to persuade Bernard Meyer, a German entrepreneur to buy the yard and start a private ship building company. Again, with high drama, Bissineger describes Randell and Cohen’s negotiations between Governor Tom Ridge, Mr. Meyers and even President Clinton and Chancellor Herbert Kohl as vibrant and intricate. But with no avail, the deal was killed and a different US based entrepreneur purchased the yards for more public money and less associated jobs. This provides a clear description of Randell’s engagement in providing jobs, the tax dollars involved with enterprise zone and economic growth and the fragility of the issue.
Finally, Bissineger describes Randell’s obstacles with the press in two narratives. The first was a 911debatical, which used a press expose laced with race relations published in the Philadelphia magazine. The issue presented was how various callers calling in crime incidences faced discrimination by the vary way they called out for help. Furthermore, highlighting that race relations, crime and poverty are inseparable issues for citizens living in Philadelphia. Next, Bissineger describes Kathy Sheehan’s, a city journalist who wrote for a local magazine, encounter with Randell at a book opening reception. Rendell lost his cool and snapped at the journalist. This exhibition reveled Rendell as human and vulnerable under pressure.
Final blows that ended Rendell’s terms in office ended with thorny race relations, job loss, crime and poverty among blacks. He was able to develop a balanced budget, care and assistance to city residence. But his track record dealing with city problems crumbles. Furthermore his political career didn’t end with being mayor of Philadelphia, rather he continues to work for the citizens of Pennsylvania, as govern. Further demonstrating the hope of this book—the hard work and determination can help to overcome the wicked public problems of the next century.
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