Few things are as endlessly entertaining as depictions of Philadelphia in pop culture, which is why we're launching The 19102 Review, a new column devoted to Philly books.
A Prayer for the City
Nonfiction, 1997, Random House, 408 pp.
This in-depth account of Ed Rendell’s first term as mayor may have been written in and about Philadelphia in the 1990s, but — with Detroit in ruin, Chicago a war zone this summer, our own city’s schools on the precipice and our national “leaders” determined to constantly invent crisis through sheer frivolity and myopia — it’s still very much a book for our time.
Some of Bissinger’s faults are here, like repetition, lapses into cliché and a tendency to overstate ironies. Yet so are all the qualities that make him a great journalist. He has a Clintonian ability to make statistics hit home, a capacity for relating research and the complex history of unheeded warnings, bad choices and the unpredictable tides of capitalism that wrecked the city. He also has an ear for a revelatory quote and an eye for characters that vivify large problems like the war of the unions, the demise of the shipyard and the scourge of public housing.
And what a cast of characters it is. The mercurial Rendell and his indefatigable éminence grise David Cohen, our protagonists; the self-aggrandizing then-City Council President John Street, without whom the city’s cynical and savage racial politics cannot be navigated; an attack-dog assistant district attorney and a fiery libertarian activist, one trying to save the city from its criminals and the other, from its national government; a grandmother just barely holding on to her house and the young children who have fallen to her care. And so many others: heroes, hucksters, villains, victims, all offering up from their hearts or falsely from their lips, in the words of North Philly’s Cookman United children’s choir, a prayer for the city: “I will serve thee. … Because I love thee.”
If you have a book that'd be perfect for The 19102 Review (the dustier, the better), email ten.repapytic@gylime, or just drop it in the mail it to Emily Guendelsberger at Philadelphia City Paper, 30 S. 15th St., 14th floor, 19102.