This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
After Two Decades of Growth, Philadelphia Still Feels Left Behind
South Philadelphia’s rooftops offer a stunning panorama of a city balancing its past and future. A sea of row homes, occasionally broken by old school buildings and church steeples, flow northward toward Center City, where towers of glistening glass spread symmetrically within the confines of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers.
The 60-story Comcast Technology Center, nearing completion, is the tallest skyscraper, its structure reminiscent of a nineties-era cellphone. Nearby is Liberty Place, comprised of two office towers that imitate New York City’s Chrysler Building. In the mid-1980s, One and Two Liberty Place broke the “gentlemen’s agreement” that Center City’s buildings should not exceed the height of the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. Three decades later, City Hall—a gigantic Second-Empire pile once described by Walt Whitman as “silent, weird, beautiful”—is overshadowed by Philadelphia’s contemporary architectural landscape.
The occupants of City Hall, especially in the 1990s, played a pivotal role in Philadelphia’s resurgence. At the time, the city was confronting skyrocketing crime, stark population loss, shuttered manufacturers, fleeing employers, a public housing crisis, and the prospect of bankruptcy. Ed Rendell inherited this perfect storm when he became Philadelphia’s 96th mayor in January 1992. Rendell’s first term, often credited with reinvigorating the city, was the focus of Buzz Bissinger’s 1997 masterpiece, A Prayer for the City.
It’s now been two decades since Bissinger chronicled the spectrum of feelings that a city conjures for its mayor and constituents—and revisiting the landmark book reminds us how dramatically Philadelphia has transformed since those dark days of Rendell’s first term.
Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist widely known as the author of the West Texas saga Friday Night Lights, composed a story that reveals the urban experience with clarity and empathy. In the anthology of books on American cities, Robert Caro is celebrated for The Power Broker, his magisterial biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses. But A Prayer for the City should be remembered as the book that best describes a city on the brink of salvation or perdition.
A Prayer for the City movingly describes the boundless optimism generated by mundane moments, the tensions aroused by the slightest provocations, and the heartbreak and despair induced by the unknown. Bissinger successfully documents the American city with all its intensity, violence, decay, and political intrigue. He reveals an urban culture from a period when only negative trends prevailed.
Bissinger’s main characters are Rendell, the city’s beleaguered yet resilient guardian, and David L. Cohen, his affable and brilliant chief of staff. Rendell, a larger-than-life figure, enjoyed a political comeback with the 1991 mayoral election. In the 1980s, Rendell hoped to leverage his District Attorney years by running for governor. In 1986, Rendell was crushed by Bob Casey, Sr. in Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. A year later, Rendell ran against Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, but the outcome remained the same. In Bissinger’s telling, Neil Oxman, a political consultant, recalls that somehow, in 1990, Rendell “woke up…and said, ‘I’m going to do this the right way.’” Rendell prevailed in the 1991 Democratic mayoral primary. Then his general-election opponent, the legendary former Mayor Frank Rizzo, died suddenly over the summer. Rendell coasted to victory that November.
When Cohen was named Rendell’s campaign manager in 1990, he was working at one of the city’s top law firms. Despite their contrasting personalities, a loyal friendship commenced between the two men. A meticulous professional, Cohen was “known for the way he learned the nuances of group insurance by reading some five thousand pages on it.” He was also “known for the way he personally inspected every piece of mail his secretaries typed up for him, even the envelopes.”
Rendell, meanwhile, was often a canvas of emotions ranging from charm and irreverence to rage and gloom. But neither Cohen’s efficiency nor Rendell’s charisma could prepare them for City Hall’s chaos. “To be the mayor of an American city meant facing potential tragedy twenty-four hours a day,” writes Bissinger.
Post-election developments, whether anticipated or unexpected, left the Rendell-Cohen duo with limited time to save Philadelphia from its seemingly endless problems. In early 1992, a computer model forecasted that Philadelphia faced a $1.246 billion budget gap over the following five years if the city didn’t take action.
Rendell went public with the city’s dire fiscal situation. Candor proved an advantageous strategy, with the Rendell administration ultimately winning significant concessions from Philadelphia’s omnipotent unions. Bissinger, who had open access to City Hall for four years, reveals the backstage negotiations that subsequently protected Philadelphia from financial collapse, scored bipartisan praise and media accolades, and insured Rendell’s political future.
As mayor, Rendell embraced 1990s-era revitalization strategies. He favored the entertainment approach common among big cities. A new convention center, the construction of luxury hotels, and the opening of major-chain restaurants like Hard Rock Café heralded hope for Center City’s future. But citywide challenges often overshadowed Rendell’s efforts to improve downtown, promote tourism, fund the arts, and attract suburban visitors.
Philadelphia’s post-industrial trends, far from unique, proved overwhelming. Rendell delicately navigated the city’s demographic complexities as a peacemaker, hoping to subdue or maintain support from aggrieved politicians and resentful residents. The statistics fueled the tension. In the early 1990s, Philadelphia’s poverty rate was 20 percent, its high school dropout rate was 40 percent, and only 32 percent of the region’s jobs were within city limits. Philadelphia was no longer a “Workshop of the World,” where the working class thrived in a neighborhood-centric city with sprawling mills and factories. As Bissinger recounts, the city had “become the Manufacturing Mausoleum of the World.”
Bissinger features a supporting cast alongside Rendell and Cohen, unveiling city characters who represent the cycle of urban life. He profiles Jim Mangan, a welder who must regroup when the federal government closes Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Mike McGovern, an assistant district attorney proud of his city, grapples with its realities, and aggressively pursues justice against violent criminals. Linda Morrison, a libertarian reformer, meets defeat in her pursuit of city living. Fifi Mazzccua, a loving matriarch, finds comfort in her church despite family tragedy in the city’s “Badlands.”
In the background, Rendell and Cohen aggressively respond to Clinton-era policies that risked placing the city on life support. “Forget all the good things I’ve done; Philadelphia is dying,” Rendell says during a conference call. “It’s happened a lot more slowly since I took office, but we’re dying.”
Philadelphia has transformed since Bissinger’s mid-90s portrait. City Hall now enjoys the fruits of an expanding higher-education sector, growing hospital systems, start-up companies, and new real estate development. Millennials flock to neighborhoods that only a decade ago were ridden with crime and blight. North Philadelphia’s Francisville, for example, is a haven for bike-riding residents living in newly-built apartment buildings. As the U.S. Census notes, as of 2017, Philadelphia’s population has risen eleven years in a row. An expanding job market, with suburban companies opening Center City offices, continues to attract new residents.
The city’s Navy Yard, which dates to 1776, is now a mixed-use campus with over 11,000 employees working in the office, industrial, and R&D sectors. Penn’s Landing, along the Delaware River, is being redevelped to connect the waterfront to neighborhoods by capping a portion of I-95 with a 12-acre park. Even the Divine Lorraine Hotel, long a source of wonder for its deteriorating majesty, is enjoying a $44 million rehabilitation.
Across from 30th Street Station, Philadelphia’s central transportation hub, the Schuylkill Yards project will transform 14 acres of barren, Drexel University-owned land into 7 million square feet of commercial buildings, retail space, and research labs. The 20-year, $3.5 billion project is part of West Philadelphia’s rapid gentrification. As WHYY Plan Philly’s Jim Saksa recently reported, in 1995 the average home in the University City neighborhood sold for about $80,000. Homes just west of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus are now valued at nearly $500,000.
Philadelphia’s 10-year property-tax abatement played an important role in the city’s population growth and construction boom. The measure, introduced in 2000, exempted new or renovated residential properties from taxation on improvements for a decade. The abatement created a construction frenzy, reshaping the character of neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Fishtown. But the policy, while economically critical, also has downsides. In many cases, developers replaced historic properties with cheap, stucco-clad apartment buildings. Property taxes, in turn, increased for existing residents already dealing with a burdensome wage tax. For many families, the city’s struggling public schools have made private school tuition an additional unavoidable expense.
The city has changed since the Rendell years, but negative socioeconomic trends linger. Philadelphia continues to have one of the nation’s poorest populations and it trails the growth of other U.S. cities. In 2017, the Brookings Institution released a report addressing how Philadelphia can excel in a global economy and serve its local population. While Brookings acknowledged improvements in Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, it also warned that the city ranked lower in innovation and growth measures compared to its metro peers.
And so, Philadelphia, despite its renaissance, still wrestles with cognitive dissonance. The city embraces its future, but history and tradition restrain its forward pace. The city attracts new employers, investment, and residents, but the statistics remain sobering. The city even pursues efforts at reform, but machine-style politics—Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented”—inhibit lasting improvements.
Bissinger showed how a big city’s economic, cultural, and political complexities can make its imperfections an inescapable reality. He captured how Rendell, as mayor, triangulated Philadelphia’s political ecosystem to restore the city’s future. Looking back, it’s indisputable that the city’s comeback began with Rendell’s administration. His efforts, largely successful, delivered career success. Following his chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, Rendell served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. Cohen, who remained his chief of staff until 1997, is now Senior Executive Vice President at Comcast.
Would Rendell thrive in Philadelphia’s current political landscape? He was a Democratic mayor in a Democratic city, but a political leader capable of working with all sides. Of course, there are not many Republicans in Philadelphia. Registered Democrats presently outnumber Republicans by 7 to 1. This majority has its origins in the 1950s, when Joseph Clark broke up the GOP machine that had ruled the city for decades. The Democratic City Committee has ruled Philadelphia since that time, perpetuating the very machine politics that Clark hoped to extinguish after World War II.
But questions are now arising about the establishment’s lasting power. In May, progressive Democrat Elizabeth Fiedler, a former reporter, pulled off an upset primary victory in the South Philadelphia legislative seat held by retiring state Rep. Bill Keller. Left-wing, grassroots-based groups played a pivotal role in Fiedler’s win. Based on national trends, it’s unlikely that candidates like Fiedler would replicate the spirit of moderation and compromise favored by Rendell.
Will the old machine withstand this left-wing ascendance? Corruption does not help their cause. Between 2000 and 2015, nearly 40 Philadelphia politicians found themselves under investigation. In recent years, the city’s district attorney went to prison for bribery, a long-time Congressman was sentenced to prison for influence peddling, and five state legislators were caught trading favors or laundering money. The Traffic Court, meanwhile, dissolved after a ticket-fixing scandal, and the FBI raided the City Council majority leader’s office.
For now, the construction boom continues, the Democratic machine endures, and city leaders celebrate favorable trends. It’s a city that retains an almost chiaroscuro quality, finding enlightenment through investment and population growth, but also darkness as a one-party system maintains its tribal grip over the city. Bissinger captures these qualities in A Prayer for the City, which is not only Philadelphia’s story, but also a history of the American city. Reading the book twenty years later, one can draw an encouraging conclusion. Despite the challenges, Philadelphia’s prayers were largely answered. As Bissinger shows, the path to resurrection is long and perilous, but it can be successfully navigated, particularly by a gifted politician like Rendell.
Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania.