A Prayer for the City

Score: 8 / 10

This is a fascinating, brutally honest overview of what it takes to run (and revive) a major city. It covers the first term of former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell and his chief of staff David Cohen.

The majority of the book focuses on Rendell’s negotiations with the city’s municipal unions, his efforts to reform the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and his attempt to save the city’s famous naval yard. There are also profiles of ordinary Philadelphians mixed throughout the book, and they add nice context by showing the effects of (and reactions to) Rendell’s policies.

I love the coverage of city issues in this book. Much like Rendell himself, Bissinger does not equivocate about the problems facing the city or the roadblocks to fixing them. His diagnosis mirrors that of the Rendell administration: municipal unions, high taxes, a shrinking tax base, fewer manufacturing jobs, corruption, self-interested and power-hungry politicians, lack of hope, the list goes on. I found this diagnosis to be spot-on. All of these problems continue to burden cities today, even if many of them have fallen out of the popular discourse.

Further, Bissinger’s explanation of how things get done in municipal politics (lots of favor trading, ego stroking, and bureaucratic maneuvering) mirrors my own experiences/understanding. And the description of dysfunction within municipal institutions (as captured by rent-seekers, barely functional, and mired by warring internal factions) is more accurate and widely applicable than most people probably want to know.

That said, while the content of the book is accurate, relevant, and engaging, the presentation is awful. Maybe I’m used to extremely dry nonfiction, but I found Bissinger’s writing incredibly annoying.

The whole book is jam-packed with clumsy metaphors and useless descriptions. There are terrible and infuriating end-of-sentence cliffhangers sprinkled throughout the book, which offer you a tantalizing and completely unnecessary clue about what will happen in the next paragraph.

These two things make the narrative sections of the book feel like a pulpy action sequence. The writing comes across as overcompensating and insecure, like it’s trying too hard to ensure the readers are engaged. Which is a shame, because the content of this book is riveting and more than enough to stand on its own without the gimmicks.

But overall, if you can get past the unimpressive writing, A Prayer for the City offers an unparalleled look at big city politics, with its all highs and lows, drama, and possibilities.