Of the cities that currently serve as backdrops for most television drama, New York dominates; San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago are runners-up; Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Baltimore recently have all made at least one appearance. Dallas lent its name to a long-running show; so did Miami. Seattle is the setting for the award-winning Frasier; Washington, D.C., for Murphy Brown. Yet there is one conspicuous absence. Not since thirtysomething, which was actually set in a suburb outside Philadelphia, has the City of Brotherly Love figured in a prominent television series.
It is a striking omission. Philadelphia is the fifth-largest city in the country. It is in one of the most populous—and prosperous—metropolitan areas in the United States. It has the Liberty Bell as well as Independence Hall, the greatest concentration of museum art after New York, a legendary orchestra, and an Ivy League university. Despite these attributes, Philadelphia occupies a curious position in the national consciousness. It is almost invisible.
Philadelphia was never a favorite city for Americans. Of the four “familiar quotations” Bartlett’s lists for the city, three are distinctly uncomplimentary. “On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” famously quipped that ungrateful native son, W.C. Fields—he meant it as his epitaph. “Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities,” observed Mencken, “and thus probably leads the world.” Mark Twain weighed in with: “In Boston they ask, How much does he know? In New York, How much is he worth? In Philadelphia, Who were his parents?”
Twain wrote that in 1899. He was right about upper-class Philadelphians’ obsession with heredity (it continues to be a preoccupation). But if turn-of-the-century Philadelphians did not ask, “How much is he worth?,” there was another reason: they were rich. In 1900, Philadelphia was one of the greatest and most diversified manufacturing cities in the world. Its textile industry was unrivaled. The city was the headquarters of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, and the home of the Baldwin Locomotive works. It was also the site of one of the largest naval shipbuilding yards in the country. Philadelphia led all other American cities in petroleum refining; knit and lace goods manufacturing; upholstery, carpets, and rugs; cardboard and paper making; cigar and cigarette manufacturing; clay products; and plumbers’ supplies. It was a powerhouse.
Here, then, is one explanation for the city’s longstanding lack of national prominence. It was a blue-collar, smokestack town, slow and steady, without the sizzle of New York, the gentility of Boston, the down-at-heel charm of New Orleans, or the sunny glamour of Los Angeles. It was not “hog butcher to the world” like Chicago, or a city of blast furnaces like Pittsburgh—it made carpets and cardboard boxes. They did not stir the national imagination. There was no Whitman or Sandburg to celebrate the makers of plumbing supplies.
In 1900, Philadelphia was one of the ten most populous cities in the world and, at about one hundred and thirty square miles, one of the most expansive. Philadelphians generally did not live in crowded tenements as New Yorkers did, or cramped triple-deckers as Bostonians did. They owned houses. In fact, more people owned their own houses in Philadelphia in 1900 than in any other city in the United States—or anywhere else, for that matter. Philadelphia was also the site of another urban innovation, the suburb. In that regard, Philadelphia resembled New York and Boston, but with a difference. Unlike Brooklyn and Brookline, Philadelphia suburbs were not middle class—they were well-to-do. Rich New Yorkers lived in the city and had country houses on Long Island or up the Hudson; rich Philadelphians had small second homes in town and lived on imposing suburban estates on what came to be known as the Main Line.
This combination of almost universal homeownership, with its emphasis on home life and privacy, and the retreat of the urban elite from the center of the city to exurban splendor, produced a determined introspection. “Philadelphia, in 1900, was provincial and patrician,” wrote John Lukacs in Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines.1
Provincial, because, unlike the older Boston or the newer Chicago, incurious about what was happening in New York. Patrician, because of the close relationship of families composing its principal social and financial institutions; indifferent, rather than hostile, to the rising new rich, even when the latter were ready to make their public contributions to the benefit of the city.
The provincialism that Lukacs described had its benefits, among them a healthy conservatism that kept skyscrapers out of the downtown until the 1980s. Philadelphia, despite the occasional grand project—Fairmount Park, the enormous city hall, a parkway modeled on a Parisian boulevard—retained an old-fashioned, cozy atmosphere of blue-collar and bourgeois domesticity. This comfortable and self-sufficient city did not much care what was going on in the rest of the country; understandably, the rest of the country ignored it.
Between 1900 and 1950, Philadelphia grew larger, more productive, and richer. Its future seemed assured. The ambitious 1960 master plan for the city predicted an increase in jobs and population. Like so much else that passes for city planning, this was mostly idle dreaming and civic boosterism. The reality was that for Philadelphia—as for most older American cities—the postwar period was marked not by growth but by decline. This should have been apparent as early as the 1930s, when the expansion of automobile ownership and truck transportation meant the end of cities concentrated around railroad terminals. World War II, with its government-supported wartime industries, gave Philadelphia only a brief respite.
Philadelphia was far from being a single-industry town like Pittsburgh or Cleveland. It had the manufacturing diversity that Jane Jacobs maintains is basic to sound urban economies. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s complacent entrepreneurs did not capitalize on this diversity. Like the entrenched municipal bureaucracy, management proved too atrophied and too resistant to change. The loss of manufacturing jobs was nothing less than catastrophic. The blacks from the rural South who arrived in the city during the postwar years found there were fewer and fewer unskilled jobs available to them, and many depended on welfare. In 1960, there were about 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the city; thirty years later there were only 85,000.
As jobs departed, so did people, largely from the white middle class. By 1990, instead of gaining 225,000 residents as the Pollyanna-ish master plan had predicted, the city lost 400,000, almost a quarter of its population.2 Six percent of Philadelphia’s housing stock now consisted of abandoned buildings, not counting vacant lots. The city was obliged to spend more than five million dollars a year just on demolishing dilapidated buildings. The poverty rate surpassed 20 percent; 14 percent of households were on public assistance, twice the national average. The education system deteriorated and 40 percent of those enrolled dropped out before finishing high school.
The departure of the middle class meant the loss of tax revenues precisely at a time when the demand for social services was rising. It was an untenable combination. The city raised taxes on wages. Employers responded by relocating their businesses in the suburbs. The city cut services; the taxpayers who could move away did so. Deficits began to accumulate. In June 1990, Moody’s Investors Service rated Philadelphia bonds below investment grade. When, in 1992, City and State magazine ranked the fiscal soundness of the nation’s fifty largest cities, Philadelphia was at the very bottom of the list.
It is at this point that Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City begins. It is January 1992. Edward G. Rendell has just been inaugurated as Philadelphia’s 127th mayor. David Cohen, Rendell’s chief of staff, and John White, a financial consultant, are running a computer model of the city budget. It is based on projected expenditures, salaries and benefits, state and federal aid, and projected tax revenues. The computer calculates and produces a number. It makes no sense—they must have made a typing error. After all, it is 2:30 in the morning. So they repeat the procedure.
The computer again paused momentarily, then returned the Number once again.
John White looked at it, and so of course did Cohen, and they quickly noticed the same thing. It was exactly the same as when White had punched in the data the first time. There had been no clerical error. There had been no mistake.
That was the Number glaring at them from the computer screen. That would be the budget gap over the next five years if nothing was done: one billion two hundred forty-six million dollars—a budget deficit bigger than the entire budget of Boston or Houston or Baltimore.
John White looked at David Cohen. David Cohen looked at John White.
“Holy shit,” said White. “This is bad.”
Much has been written about the sorry state of American cities. Many authors describe large urban problems—poor educational systems, drugs, crime, unemployment, inadequate public housing. They imply that these difficulties amount to a sort of disease. Administer the correct antibiotic, the argument goes—for example, charter schools, community policing, methadone clinics, empowerment zones, housing vouchers—and the disease can be put into remission. Other books, such as J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, about the conflict over busing in Boston, describe the same conditions but are based on a different assumption: there are no such things as “urban problems,” rather, there are problems that beset individual cities. These books, often written by journalists, describe the problems by evoking a city’s peculiar history, its character, its citizens, and its politicians. The particular serves to illuminate the general.
A Prayer for the City firmly belongs to the latter category. Bissinger is a journalist who has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. In May 1991, while living in the Midwest, he learned that Rendell was running for mayor. He got in touch with Cohen, who was managing the campaign, and asked whether, if Rendell were to win, he would give Bissinger access to the administration for four years to write a book. Rendell’s answer was yes. After the election, Bissinger moved in. “David Cohen and I basically shared an office for four years,” he writes. The result is an extraordinary book, an insider’s account of the daily workings of a big-city administration.
“Spending four years on the couch of a mayor is a bizarre way to make a living,” writes Bissinger, “but if you’re going to do it, there is no better person to do it with than Ed Rendell.” In fact, Bissinger made a very lucky—or a very smart—guess. When Rendell was elected, Philadelphia was bankrupt in all but name. Yet in only two years, Rendell’s administration eliminated a long-term deficit of almost $200 million without raising taxes; he negotiated a cost-cutting contract with the city employees’ unions and privatized many municipal services. Rendell avoided the billion-dollar sinkhole and worked what many would call a miracle.
Rendell’s political record was hardly promising. He was a native New Yorker who went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, graduated from Villanova University law school, and stayed in Philadelphia to work in the district attorney’s office. In 1976 he ran on the Democrat ticket for district attorney and won. He was popular and was easily reelected. In 1986, after finishing his second term, he decided to run for governor of the state. He was defeated in the primary. A year later he entered the Philadelphia mayoral primary, opposing the incumbent, W. Wilson Goode, the city’s first black mayor, who seemed politically vulnerable. It was Goode who had authorized the infamous bombing of a radical group’s headquarters that resulted in eleven deaths and the destruction of sixty-one West Philadelphia row houses. Rendell was defeated in that primary, too. He was beginning to look like a perpetual loser.
In 1990, despite not having won an election in nine years, the forty-eight-year-old Rendell decided to run once more for mayor of Philadelphia. This time, he was lucky. Philadelphia has a two-term limit, and Goode had to step down. Two black candidates split the large black Democratic vote—by 1990, Philadelphia was 40 percent black. Rendell won the primary. He was opposed by a popular Republican veteran, Frank L. Rizzo, former mayor and police chief, who unexpectedly died the summer before the election. Rendell won the election in a landslide.
Rendell also was lucky in obtaining the services of David Cohen. Cohen had been his press secretary during the failed mayoral campaign of 1987. Then thirty-one, he was a successful corporate lawyer in a prominent Philadelphia firm. As Bissinger describes him, he is a prodigious worker with a quick intelligence, insistent on mastering details, and a patient negotiator. Rendell, by contrast, comes across as undisciplined, expansive, intuitive. The cool technician and the charismatic politician were a good match, something that both men seem to have understood almost immediately. “We are best friends,” Cohen told Bissinger, “but we are also like brothers. He’s like my father. I’m like his father.” Cohen was one of the few who stuck with Rendell after his loss to Goode. When Rendell was finally elected mayor, he asked Cohen to join his administration as chief of staff, a position created specially for him.
Rendell and Cohen found a city in financial ruin. It was not just the growing deficit; according to Bissinger, there was only enough money in the treasury to last roughly a week and a half. Drastic action was required. Rendell and Cohen offered the city employees’ unions a stark alternative: accept a wage freeze and across-the- board cutbacks in benefits, or as much as a sixth of the work force—4,000 employees—would be laid off as their contracts expired. The offer was not taken seriously by the unions, one of which demanded a wage increase of 18 percent. The city responded by leaking some of the more outrageous examples of featherbedding. For example, how many employees did it take to change a fluorescent tube at the Philadelphia International Airport? Answer: three. One to remove the fixture cover, one to replace the tube, a third to sweep up. Cohen proved a skilled tactician. He played off factions against each other. At one point, he threatened to privatize garbage collection (a bluff, but the union didn’t know that). The recalcitrant unions prepared to strike. Bissinger describes the crisis atmosphere as the strike date approached. The city’s contingency plan included changing locks, backing up computer data in case of sabotage, preparing secret contracts for the removal of sewage sludge, providing security to fire departments, even stockpiling toilet paper.
In the end, Rendell and Cohen won. Wages were frozen for two years and later increases kept to a minimum. Benefits were reduced. Representatives of the city were admitted to the boards that administered the unions’ health and pension benefits. Moreover, the city gained the right to set work rules, monitor performance, contract out certain services, and even lay off workers in certain instances. “By any measure, it was a remarkable contract,” writes Bissinger, “a nationwide model for what a city government could do under the right conditions of crisis.” This is an overstatement. It is true that wages were frozen, but they were frozen at already unrealistically high levels. If this is a model, it is hardly a sustainable one.
The conditions of crisis continue. The educational bureaucracy proved more resistant to reform than the municipal unions; the dropout rate remains high and the schools often ineffectual and overcrowded. But a new downtown convention center was built and Philadelphia-Camden was chosen as one of the federal government’s “urban empowerment zones.” In 1992, the federal government took control of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, considered by many to be the most incompetent and corrupt in the country. It was the largest takeover of its kind. Then, in an unprecedented arrangement between the city and the federal government, Rendell became chairman of the housing authority board, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated funds to improve the stock of ailing public housing, a quarter of which was actually vacant.
The story of the Philadelphia Navy Yard is the climax of Bissinger’s book. The yard was about to close after 194 years of shipbuilding, putting thousands out of work. A German corporation that was interested in building cruise ships in the US was approached by the city, which expected that 6,000 jobs and tax benefits as high as $30 million would result if the yard was kept going. After complex negotiations, the cost of modernizing the facilities was to be shared between the Germans, the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the regional port authority, and the city. Then Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Ridge, withdrew his support. Cohen devised a plan to float a bond issue to make up the shortfall. At the last minute, Ridge, in an apparent fit of pique, publicly (and inaccurately) attacked the German shipbuilder for not making a larger investment. The chagrined Germans withdrew; the deal fell through. (A Norwegian shipbuilder recently signed a contract with the city to reactivate the Navy Yard.)
Bissinger also chronicles the small daily vicissitudes that befall a big-city mayor: a local factory closes, a policeman is shot, neighborhood racial conflicts flare up. Indeed, most of the time Rendell seems more like a municipal father figure than an administrator—commiserating, cajoling, back-slapping, scolding. Some of the most lively scenes in the book concern these ordinary activities, in which we get some sense of Rendell’s simple and friendly but also shrewd way of dealing with people. The mayor is also a kind of referee. Philadelphia, more than most American cities, consists of neighborhoods that enjoy great autonomy, with whites largely segregated from blacks. An experienced community activist once described ward politics to me as based on the idea of “Something for everybody; not too much for anybody.” Philadelphians engage in an extreme form of localism that frequently stymied even as able a politician as Rendell. “The racial politics that had been displayed during the first term made easy decisions difficult and fractious,” Bissinger writes. “The extortionate threats of every self-interest group imaginable, vowing to heap embarrassment and woe on the mayor if he didn’t do exactly what they wanted, had a similar impact, to the point where the public interest often seemed irrelevant.”
A Prayer for the City is a journalist’s chronicle of urban political life. It has some of the qualities of a dramatized diary, although Bissinger also includes useful digressions on Philadelphia’s recent history. Rendell and Cohen are at the center of the book, but Bissinger also brings into it the stories of four persons living in the city: a hard-boiled prosecutor; a seasoned Navy Yard welder who loses his job; a white-collar worker who is hard put to decide whether she will live in, or leave, the city she loves; and a black grandmother who struggles to prevail against the multiple adversities of inner-city life.
Their stories are fairly predictable, but no less affecting for that. They are also a useful reminder that urban policies can succeed or founder because of the individual decisions of citizens, which often are not based on calculations of economic self-interest. As the prosecutor says of his decision to remain in Philadelphia despite its tax on wages and its deteriorating services, “…I like being a Philadelphian. Once you leave Philadelphia, you lose your standing to care and complain about it.” Such emotional attachments notwithstanding, while Rendell and Cohen successfully attacked Philadelphia’s budget deficit, people continued to move out of the city. During the period that Bissinger describes, about 40,000 jobs left the city and the population further declined by 61,000. The poverty rate went from 20 to 30 percent.
In 1993, shortly after I moved to Philadelphia, I heard Rendell deliver the Wriston Lecture at the Manhattan Institute in New York City. The Democratic mayor both charmed and chided his conservative audience. He likened the first two years of his administration to an emergency operation. The patient had been brought in with a shotgun wound to the stomach. They had stopped the bleeding, sewn up the injury, and stabilized the situation. Now—and here Rendell paused for dramatic effect—they had to get around to treating the cancer.
It was a banal image, but he was right to sound dire and to insist that neither he nor anyone else had clear answers to the huge problems facing American cities. It is not that their plight has been ignored but that so many of the well-intentioned interventions—public housing, for example, or urban renewal, or busing—have only worsened the situation. The fragmented political system that allows very large metropolitan regions to develop without metropolitan responsibility also has hurt cities. If big cities are the home of the nation’s poor, as is now the case, should not the nation bear at least part of the burden of improving the education they get and the opportunities open to them? This is not a message that most Americans want to hear.
A Prayer for the City ends on a sober note, as it must. The recent news of falling crime rates and downtown revival, of popular new baseball stadiums and waterfront entertainment centers, suggests to some a turning point in the fortunes of cities. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Bissinger eloquently concludes:
The idea that cities had come close to reversing themselves was dangerously misleading, ignorant of poverty rates; ignorant of the timeline of decline that occurred not just for five years but for nearly fifty; ignorant of social and racial stratification; ignorant of the types of jobs that the audience economy threw off; ignorant of what would happen in the next recession when the disposable dollars of tourists and suburbanites were no longer disposable. There was also the danger that what lay behind the fancy wrap of the downtown, the gray areas of abandoned factories and worn-out neighborhoods, had been rendered invisible, the Bermuda Triangle of American life.
February 5, 1998