Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell comforts the families of two police officers shot in the line of duty. And excerpt from A Prayer For the City, by Buzz Bissinger.
By Buzz Bissinger | Illustration by John Howard
SUCCESS followed success, and as he persuaded more and more people with the spontaneous symphony of his hands and the infectious rhythm of his voice to see a place that he saw, it became easier to believe that there was something wondrous about him, regardless of the patches of hair sprouting from his head like a failed English garden, not to mention the balled-up blue suits that looked as if they had been burrowed away in gym bags.
National story spawned national story, each one better than the last, stories so gushing that even his own press secretary, Kevin Feeley, seemed a little embarrassed. The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Reader’s Digest, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Washington Post all proclaimed him the miracle man who at Mach speed had reversed a seemingly irreversible spiral of decline and decay. A dying American city had been drawn back to life by the man Vice President Al Gore had ordained “America’s mayor.”
Ed Rendell read most of these clips. Sometimes he liked them because the accompanying pictures were big and showed him with an affable smile and more hair than he could take credit for in person, and he knew such a sight would make his 84-year-old mother in New York happy. Sometimes he cringed over the effusion of them because it raised the bar of his success ever higher, and he knew that fellow mayors, while offering congratulations in public, would start sticking little pins into the ears and eyes of their voodoo dolls in private.
Sometimes he obsessed over the three or four paragraphs out of 200 that described him as impulsive, because he hated the idea that he was impulsive, and he hated having it pointed out, even though, of course, he was totally impulsive, and after five minutes with him it was impossible for anyone not to point it out, whether the visitor was nine or 90. But he knew better than to pay a whole lot of attention to the cacophony of what was written.
Most of all, he knew better on November nights such as this one — a silent race through the city where nothing he did could make any difference. Up until the shots rang out, the night had had a sweet placidity. His round of appearances — a reception for Red Bell beer over at the Katmandu down on the Delaware, a series of painless speeches before the American Red Cross and at the annual Stephen Girard Award dinner, a quick stop at the Legg Mason open-house celebration high atop the shiny gleam of a downtown skyscraper — meant that he might actually get home before the usual witching hour of 10:00 p.m.
But then, just around 6:00 p.m., came the crackle of gunfire on a West Philadelphia street and reports that two Philadelphia narcotics officers had been shot during an undercover drug deal. One of the officers had suffered a relatively minor graze wound in the hand. But the other, a three-year veteran of the force named Dathan Enoch, had been shot in the left side of the chest and rushed to Lankenau Hospital just outside the city limits. As Enoch underwent surgery, members of his family began to gather in a makeshift reception room. High-ranking members of the police department arrived. And so did several members of the mayor’s office: David L. Cohen, the chief of staff, who, like Radar in M*A*S*H, had the ability to be in the right place well before anyone even knew there was a right place; and Anthony Buchanico, a police sergeant in charge of security for the mayor.
Rendell himself was en route. In the meantime, about 20 people awkwardly milled about, speaking to one another in small and hushed circles, waiting for some glimmer to indicate that Enoch was not going to die. When unofficial word filtered into the room that he was going to make it, the relief was palpable — among the family members sitting around one of the tables in a silent knot, among the police officials who several months earlier had gathered outside a city church on a blue and windswept day to say good-bye to a fellow officer who had been killed in the line of duty during what should have been a routine traffic stop. There would also be relief for the mayor himself, who hated hospital scenes such as this in an almost pathological way, perhaps because they conflicted so terribly with his eternal sense of optimism and served as a brutal reminder of all that the city wasn’t, but perhaps also because they echoed the death of his own father when he was 14 years old.
The mood of the room lifted with the news of Enoch’s recovery. And then came the crackle and pop over a small radio receiver that one of the officers carried, followed by the flat voice of a dispatcher:
Buchanico, who had spent 29 years as a police officer in the city, 21 of them in uniform, strained to hear the words as if they were some kind of macabre joke. He grabbed the radio and went outside so he could better hear the toneless words of the dispatcher.
There were more crackles and pops over the radio, then the words:
And Buchanico knew what those words meant. The officer was in trouble, terrible trouble, going down, choking on blood and spit and fear on a shitty street corner somewhere, and right then and there, standing outside by himself, Buchanico knew what was going to unfold.
The moment Cohen had heard the initial call from the police dispatcher, he knew too that the officer was not going to make it. They had been lucky with Enoch, and Cohen knew that in the city, luck never came a second time.
“These guys are getting their brains beaten in,” said Buchanico, his eyes welling with tears as he stayed outside and waited for the mayor to arrive. He knew how fellow officers felt about the mayor, how many of them felt rejected by him, how they hated him and didn’t fall for his charm and disarming self-deprecation for a second and were convinced that he was far more interested in the bright lights of The New York Times and Good Morning America than he ever was in standing up for the men in blue who had to put up with these streets night after night after night. In previous contract negotiations, the police had always done a little bit better than everyone else, gotten a little bit more. After all, they were police officers. But this administration — the Rendell administration — had been different, particularly with that bloodless prick Cohen as head henchman. The restoration of fiscal balance became more than just a campaign catchphrase, and the once sacrosanct police department had gotten starting salaries cut and paid holidays cut, just like everyone else who worked for the city. Buchanico knew that this latest round of shootings would only add to the fury of the officers in the department and would only enhance the mayor’s image as cold and calculating and obsessed with cementing his image as America’s mayor and favorite budget cutter. Buchanico felt some of that rage himself, particularly in a surreal moment such as this, in which two officers had been seriously wounded within hours of each other in different parts of the city. But he also knew there was another side.
Buchanico had seen it five months earlier, when Philadelphia Police Officers Robert Hayes and John Marynowitz had been shot during a routine traffic stop. Buchanico went to the Albert Einstein Medical Center, where both officers were in surgery. Marynowitz had been shot in the head and shoulder, and Hayes had been shot through the eye. The police sergeant knew that the mayor had to come to the hospital.
Rendell was furious when Buchanico came to his house to pick him up. It was late; he wasn’t even dressed, meaning he had to trudge upstairs to put that stupid blue-suit uniform back on. Buchanico remembered him as being livid the same way a big kid is livid when he is forced to do something he desperately doesn’t want to do and can taste the very dread of it on his tongue. On the way to the hospital, Rendell said that he would just be in the way, that this was “no time for politicians,” that the only reason politicians showed up at events such as this was to grandstand before those television cameras with solemnity and stoicism so the public would think they actually gave a shit about something. When they neared the hospital entrance, Rendell insisted that the car lights be cut and they use a side entrance to avoid the media. And Buchanico knew what drove that anger, which really wasn’t anger at all but the pain of having to look into the eyes of the small children who belonged to these officers, with their nubby brush cuts and their rounded faces and their smooth cheeks, and somehow say something to them.
But the minute Rendell got to the hospital, all that anger evaporated as if it had never been there. As Buchanico watched, it was obvious the mayor intuitively understood the needs of those children better than anyone else, knew what to say to them, knew how to be playful with them, knew how to kibitz with them as if he lived down the block.
Officer Hayes had three boys. The two youngest boys, Sean and Ryan, didn’t really understand what was happening, the mayor felt, and seemed to welcome the attention they were getting, and there was some mercy in that. But the oldest boy, who was ten and named Robert Hayes Jr., after his father, was frightened, so terribly frightened.
Rendell watched as Sean and Ryan went home to bed. And he watched as Robert Jr., after being up all night, finally fell asleep on an oversize hospital chair, finding peace in the ebb and flow of that night as hope fell and rose and fell again. The mayor was there at 3:00 a.m., when the doctor told those gathered that Officer Hayes had a fighting chance of making it. He was there at 5:30 a.m., when the doctor burst in to say that Officer Hayes was about to go into cardiac arrest. He was there 40 minutes later, when Officer Hayes was pronounced dead. He was there when the doctor awoke Bobby Hayes Jr. from his sleep to tell him that his father had died. And he was there when Officer Hayes’s wife, Joanne, after receiving a dutiful string of condolences, quietly mused aloud that in four days, four days, those three little boys with their daddy-boy looks and nubby brush cuts would have gathered round to celebrate Father’s Day.
“There’s nothing more sickening, nothing,” said Rendell later that afternoon, staring out the window of his office into the courtyard of City Hall, somber and subdued, as if he were searching for something so far away that not even he had any idea of where it was — beyond the courtyard, where every afternoon the flutist looking for handouts played his haunting rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” beyond the spires of the skyscrapers built during the downtown boom of the 1980s and the three-story row houses built during the industrial boom of the early 1900s, beyond the leather-and-lace glory of South Street and the carcasses of the abandoned factories that once defined the very soul of the city, beyond the splendidly restored brick of Society Hill and the blocks that looked liked Dresden after the bombing. Was it the memory of the doctor gently jarring that little boy awake from his sleep to tell him his father had died? Was it the memory of the death of his own father when he was a young teenager — the call at school from his uncle telling him he had to come home, the ride on the subway with his chest pounding and his mouth dry, and then the news that his father, who had been perfectly fine that morning, who had played football in the park with him the previous Sunday, had died outside their apartment building in New York while hailing a cab.
“Gratuitous, senseless, fucking violence,” he had said that afternoon in June as he stared out the window, still searching for that far-off point. Now, on a brisk November night, the scene was repeating itself.
When the mayor himself arrived at the back entrance of Lankenau Hospital at about 8:55 p.m., both Buchanico and Cohen were there to meet him.
“Another officer has been shot,” Cohen told Rendell as he got out of the car.
“Oh God,” said Rendell.
He went into the room where Officer Enoch’s family was waiting — his mother gently fingering the well-worn black cover of the Book of Psalms, his eight-month-old nephew clutching a cookie with thick and stubby fingers, his brothers, his sisters. Rendell, with one leg propped up on a chair like a football coach, made small talk with family members and tried to keep them going until the surgeon came out with the newest update. In the meantime, he received intermittent reports on the condition of the other officer who had been shot. Information was sketchy, but the shooting had taken place in front of an automatic teller machine on Spring Garden Street in the Fairmount section of the city, and the officer’s name was Stephen Dmytryk. He had been on the police force for 15 years, was married, and had two children.
“Head and shoulder,” said the mayor quietly, his voice trailing off so that it was difficult to hear.
“The other officer OK?” asked one of Officer Enoch’s family members.
“The officer was shot in the head and shoulder,” said Rendell.
From around the table came a collective gasp. “Oh my God,” said one.
Almost simultaneously the doctor who had performed the surgery on Officer Enoch came in to brief the family. He was dressed in a surgeon’s green gown, and the protective slippers he wore over his shoes were flecked with blood. “We’re all finished up,” he said. “He’s got a lot of injuries. He’s gonna be sick for quite a while.”
Then he turned away to speak privately with the mayor and various police officials, this time in much more detail, outlining the path that the bullet had taken through Officer Enoch’s body — through his chest about an inch below the left nipple, taking away part of the liver, the pancreas, and the stomach and then lodging in the spinal column. Rendell asked about paralysis, and the doctor said that based on a neurological evaluation of the officer done right before the surgery, there were no indications of any.
In a macabre trading of information, Rendell reported on the condition of Officer Enoch while reporters in turn gave him the latest updates on Officer Dmytryk. “This is a Wild West night,” said the mayor in response to a question. “There are far too many guns out there and far too many people who shoot their guns without fear.” As the impromptu press conference ended and Rendell turned around to go back into the hospital, police official James Golden quietly informed him of the condition of Officer Dmytryk. “A priest has been called for the officer,” he said.
Rendell shook his head slightly and walked slowly into the brightly lit hallway of the hospital without saying a word, as ashen as the rumpled gray suit he wore. His brown eyes, usually sprinkled with the mirth of amusement or the explosive rage of too much to do and never enough time in which to do it, just looked tired and puffy. He shuffled back into the waiting room so he could stay with the members of Officer Enoch’s family until they could go up to the intensive care unit. Over the cooing and fidgeting of that little eight-month-old nephew, Rendell told the family about Officer Dmytryk. “[He] must be in bad shape because they have just called for a priest.”
A brother of Officer Enoch’s came into the room, seething with anger. In the presence of the mayor, he tried to be polite, but the words spit out of him anyway. “A lot more can be done,” he said. “Drugs gettin’ out of control in this city, and nothin’s being done about it.”
Rendell said nothing, and moments later he was given another update on Officer Dmytryk.
He was dead.
A few minutes later a nurse came into the room to take the Enoch family to intensive care. Enoch’s mother, her face soft and gentle, gazed at the mayor as he clasped her hand. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“He’s gonna be fine,” said the mayor, bending over slightly, putting his arm around her shoulder almost as if she were a child. “It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be a short-term thing, but he’s gonna be fine.”
And then off he went in the autumn night, racing away from one hospital emergency room to another. From his familiar place in the front passenger seat of the car, he called his wife, Midge, en route, letting her know, in a weary, barely audible voice, what had happened. Then he fell silent as the car sped through the spine of the city, down City Line Avenue, then onto the curving slope of the expressway that runs alongside the river, the flashing lights of the police escort spreading long and skeletal fingers of red and green over the gingerbread houses of Boathouse Row and the fallen majesty of the Waterworks and the pale-yellow marble of the art museum. The caravan pulled off the expressway and continued on its speeding path toward the hospital, down the flag-lined boulevard of Benjamin Franklin Parkway, built in the throes of the city-beautiful movement of the early 1900s to resemble the Champs-Elysees; past the grand gray facade of the free library, modeled after the palaces on the place de la Concorde; past the rounded brownstone eminence of the cathedral constructed in the mid-1800s to satisfy the religious needs of the burgeoning throng of Irish immigrants — the city so quiet, so still and immutable except for the sound of the sirens tunneling down the narrow streets like the gossip of the dead.
Rendell peered out the car window, his shoulders slumped, the reflections of the boathouses and the art museum and City Hall spinning off the shadow of his face in a wash of red and green from the flashing police lights.
He arrived at the emergency entrance of Hahnemann University Hospital around 10:15 p.m., getting out of the car wearily and then going past the reporters without a word. Once inside, he was given a briefing by police officials on what had happened — how there had been a stakeout of the cash machine because of a recent rash of robberies, how the two officers had witnessed a robbery and approached the suspect, how the suspect started firing, how Officer Dmytryk went down without ever getting a shot off, how he was hit twice in the chest and once in the head. “He was not responsive when he came in,” Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas Seamon told the mayor. The mayor in turn reduced the language to its most basic elements: “He was DOA.”
After the briefing, Rendell went to a small, windowless room in the emergency wing of Hahnemann to meet with the officer’s wife and two children. Their eyes were red from crying, but in their faces was anger, the anger of how this could have happened and why it had happened and who in the name of God was finally going to do something about it. When the mayor came in, they barely looked up.
“Did they get the trigger man?” asked Dmytryk’s son Stephen, his voice urgent and rapid, his hands turning open and shut, open and shut. “Did they get the trigger man?” he asked again, this time with an almost frantic edge.
Rendell patiently, almost clinically, explained the circumstances of what had happened. He said that one of the suspects had been shot and killed by the police, and the other one had gotten away. “They’re gonna catch him,” he promised the family. “They’re gonna catch him.” And then he mused aloud over the issue of gun control and how it amazed him that there could even be debate in Washington over instituting a five-day waiting period before the purchase of a handgun. The family had no reaction, as if the mayor’s presence had become immaterial.
“I want to see him one more time,” said Mary Ann Dmytryk of her husband. A social worker escorted her out of the room, leaving the mayor with the officer’s daughter, Stacy Ann. There was a slight pause, and then Rendell turned to her, struggling to retain some measure of composure. He spoke softly, with the same familial presence he had displayed when he had spoken to the mother of Officer Enoch just an hour earlier, but there was an urgency now. “As bad as it is for you, it’s gonna be worse for your mom, so you’ve got to help her.”
He walked from the room into a hallway crowded with hospital workers and police officers leaning against the white walls. They looked at him, beseeching him with their eyes as if they expected him to do something. But he looked away, and for a split second it seemed as if Ed Rendell didn’t want to be the mayor anymore, didn’t want to be the one to supply answers when there were no answers, didn’t want to be the one overflowing with optimism when there was nothing to be optimistic about, didn’t want to play the cheerful fool when there was nothing to be foolish about, didn’t want to be the one to tell a daughter that he was sorry her dad had died in the line of duty when the words seemed so empty and worthless. “Goddamn” was all he said as he walked down that hallway, his eyes filled with tears and his head still tilted toward those white walls so he didn’t have to look at anyone. “Goddamn.”
At 11:00 p.m., Rendell left the hospital to go back home. The car went back past the cathedral, past the fountain at Logan Circle where a homeless person lay shrouded in a steam of vapor, back onto the Ben Franklin Parkway toward the shimmering majesty of the art museum with that marble as pale as champagne, then onto Kelly Drive where it hugs the east bank of the river. To the left, like a scene out of Norman Rockwell, were those gingerbread boathouses as jaunty as Christmas trees. To the right, like a scene out of the American city, were the crisscrossing lights of a dozen police cars searching the alleys and crevices of the night for someone who had just become a cop killer.
Rendell was in the middle of his four-year term as mayor. If he ran for reelection and won, the job would be his until the third of January in the year 2000. There was a kind of inspirational and historic symmetry in that, in being the man who for better or worse would guide the city out of the 20th century and into the 21st. But as his driver dropped him off at home, it was obvious that the events of the night had cut deeply into his core. “If I have to go through any more of these,” he said to her, “I don’t think I want this job for another six years.” But the next day the mayor was back at work.
And so was the city.
From the book A Prayer For The City by Buzz Bissinger, C’76. Copyright (c) 1997 by H.G. Bissinger. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
S I D E B A R
An interview with Buzz Bissinger
Buzz Bissinger, C’76, self-described “DP pack rat,” Pulitzer Prize — winning reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer, and author of the bestseller Friday Night Lights, spent five and a half years reporting and writing A Prayer for the City, his epic story of Philadelphia during the first term of Mayor Edward G. Rendell, C’65. Bissinger was granted unprecedented access to City Hall for the book, able to come and go largely at will and practically sharing an office with Rendell’s chief of staff David Cohen, L’81. The result is a book that is at once gripping entertainment; a serious piece of urban history; and a fascinating, rounded portrait of the man Al Gore dubbed “America’s Mayor” and Bissinger says is “the funniest man I’ve ever met.”
The book is dominated by the odd-couple relationship of the impulsive Rendell and meticulous Cohen (the first chapter is titled “Ego and Id”), but also takes in the stories of other “heroes,” as Bissinger calls them, who daily confront the familiar urban ills of job loss, drugs, crime, and poverty that have caused the tide of decline Rendell and Cohen struggle to stem. Finally, it examines this country’s historic love — hate relationship with cities-weighted much more heavily toward the latter than the former, in Bissinger’s view.
On the eve of the book’s publication by Random House, Bissinger talked with Gazette editor John Prendergast about his time at Penn, how he got the idea for the book and the process of writing it, and how the experience has changed him.
Gazette: You grew up in New York. You first came to Philadelphia to go to school?
Bissinger: I came to Philly to go to Penn in 1972 and graduated in 1976. I loved Penn. Probably the second day, I went straight to the Daily Pennsylvanian and pretty much stayed with it for four years. I have a vivid memory of having a great experience with the Penn English Department. When I write now I think about [Professor] Bob Story-because he took my English papers and basically said, “You know, you have trouble writing an intelligible sentence.Your writing is very convoluted; you’re not expressing yourself directly.” It was painful. We’d get these papers back-there was more red than there was type! It wasn’t done out of cruelty, but out of a sense of, “You have good thoughts; how are we going to get them on the paper?” That was seminal. [Professor] Peter Conn, with whom I recently rekindled my relationship, was smart, funny, brilliant, eclectic. I feel very fortunate because I had what I feel was a great marriage at Penn: The DP-I still use those tools today as a journalist and writer-and having a great and challenging English department that kind of kept me honest and pushed me.
Gazette: Prayer is very much concerned with city politics. Were you at all involved politically here?
Bissinger: I was never involved politically. I had always known, really from the age of 15 on, that I wanted to be a journalist. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I had no political inclination-probably made fun of those who were in politics, much as I made fun of virtually everyone.
Gazette: How did the idea for the book come about?
Bissinger: The impetus for the book came when I was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer,
from 1981 to 1988, and covered politics. You would go through these
neighborhoods and-it was bizarre to me-one block was beautiful and then
you would go to another block that had just been blown to smithereens.
What was tragic to me and really hit my heart was that you could tell
that at one time these had been sturdy, viable neighborhoods, because
you would see a beautiful porch, or molding over the doorway-these
little touches of care that had been blown to hell. And almost
subconsciously at that point I just simply said, “What the hell is
happening? Something very fundamental has gone wrong.” And it sort of
stayed with me.
I left the Inquirer in 1988 and went off to write Friday Night Lights, about the impact of high school football in Odessa, Texas. I was looking for another idea for a book and was actually living in Milwaukee at the time. [Listening to the radio,] over the crackle of static, for some reason I got KYW-this is really true, this is not apocryphal-KYW in Philadelphia in Milwaukee, and heard very distantly that [former Mayor Frank] Rizzo had won the Republican primary, which I could not believe. Actually, I owed him a correction, because when I had covered politics and he had lost in 1987, I said his political career was finished. But then I heard that Ed Rendell had won the [Democratic] primary and something clicked in my brain. I thought, “Is there a way to tell a story about a city in a human way?”-because I believe that A Prayer for the City is very much a human book, it’s not a book of policy- “Is there a way to describe in a human, feeling way, what it’s like to be at the helm of the city and literally have to resurrect it and reinvent it?”
Gazette: And Rendell agreed to this very quickly?
Bissinger: Ed’s biggest concern was how were we going to get [me] into meetings where they don’t know who you are. That was his biggest concern. It wasn’t like, “Are you going to screw me?” or “What are you going to write about me?” It took thirty seconds.
Gazette: How did the process work?
Bissinger: For the first year to year and a half, I was there
almost every day. Once I sort of figured what I wanted to write about, I
was able to do other research. I had complete access to the mayor’s
office. I did not have to knock. I would simply go inside-the Mayor’s
staff was phenomenal, as was [Chief of Staff] David Cohen-and pretty
much have free run of the place.
Ed went out of his way to get me into phenomenal places. In many cases, I was never introduced, so a lot of people assumed I was his aide-and not just in Philadelphia. This includes [HUD Secretary] Henry Cisneros; it includes going to the nation’s capital and sitting there with senators and sitting there with administrative assistants to the vice president. When [President] Clinton came [to Philadelphia] I had one of these little Secret Service pins so I could walk anywhere Clinton was. I think I drove his staff crazy, because they didn’t know who the hell I was, and there I would be. I ruined this incredible photo — op Clinton had when he was here for July 4th [in the first year of his first term] to award the Liberty Medal. It was bizarre …
Gazette: Obviously a lot of the book is about Rendell and Cohen, but you also followed a number of other people.
Bissinger: I didn’t simply want to tell an inside story of City
Hall. I wanted to tell a story of a city-and of all cities, using
Philadelphia as the microcosm. I think that what happens in Philadelphia
happens everywhere. So I wanted to find families who are representative
of what it means to live in a city-to work in it, to care about it.
Then the question was to find families representative of that. I
originally found five. And in the process of the writing, one dropped, a
I learned a lot from these families, because there are great heroes in every pocket of the world and there are great heroes in this city regardless of where they went to school and regardless of how much money they do or don’t make. These were the families I wrote about. They were survivors, they cared passionately about this place, and there’s something to me tremendously inspirational and uplifting about all of them.
Gazette:The other thread running through the book is the story of the decline of American cities. In one passage, you talk about discovering the map of the city laid out by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, grading where and where not to lend for mortgages. It’s almost like a conscious act of sabotage.
Bissinger: I think that’s a good way of putting it. I first read
about the existence of these maps in a wonderful book by Kenneth Jackson
called The Crabgrass Frontier. He mentioned the HOLC, which was a
federal agency started in the Roosevelt Administration, and the
influence of federal housing policy on cities. Possibly the most
powerful invention of our society is the modern mortgage, which was
really invented in the thirties to stimulate housing, where you get a
mortgage for 10 percent down. That revolutionized housing, but it also
created the suburbs. Because the federal government was guaranteeing
those loans, they had tremendous control over where you lent and where
you did not.
This is where the term “redline” comes from. Basically, there were four different grades of where to lend and where not to lend. I remember seeing the map for Philadelphia from, I think, 1933, and I was stunned, because I knew where the pockets of poverty were, and where the vacant housing was, and the crime was. Where the Home Owners Loan Corporation had said “Don’t lend,” it was clear that these areas had been devastated-because the lifeblood was being cut off. Meanwhile, if you lived in the suburbs it was “lend, lend, lend.” There was no political correctness back then, so [the judgments] were very racially and ethnically — based. It was not simply, “Don’t lend,” it was “Don’t lend-Negro encroachment,” “Don’t lend-Jewish and Italian encroachment.”
And this was not [just] in Philadelphia, this was in city after city. So we had the society that we have. It’s not by accident. It’s very willful. I would argue that we as a culture, as a country and society, never really liked cities-we’re not comfortable with them.
Gazette: Is this more or less the book you thought you’d wind up writing when you started?
Bissinger: I think in my original proposal, I was hoping that
there would be kind of a bitter, exciting reelection. You know, Ed would
run for reelection and he would be challenged, probably by a black
challenger, and it would be a real horse race. That didn’t happen. It
was a joke with David that I was going to contribute lots of PAC money
to Dwight Evans, who’s a very good black politician. I said, “David, I
don’t care about you guys, I need an ending for my book! I’m stuck.”
People say, “Does a book ever change your life?” Well, I actually think it did. Number one, it gave me a tremendous admiration for the political process that I did not have. I’ve never seen two men work harder and more ceaselessly trying to save a place. Yes, they get something out of it. And they get some ego strokes out of it, but every single day for four years… There were times I just walked away from it. I would be in an office and my head would be swimming with all of this material I couldn’t comprehend. I was sick of it-numbers here, numbers there-but not those guys. They never ever quit.
I don’t mind saying this, I think Ed Rendell has done a terrific job. I think he’s a very admirable public figure. David Cohen’s done a terrific job. But the bottom line of the book is, ultimately-I won’t say they failed, because they’ve had a lot of success-but the city is still, like many cities, very much struggling. That’s why the original title for the book was Best of Intentions. As noble as these guys are, as good a job as they’ve done, this is still a very struggling place.
But I’ll tell you, they did a hell of a lot more than I ever thought they would. Ed Rendell has restored to this city something that I haven’t seen for 15 years, since I was a student, which is hope. Hope and belief. And without hope and belief, you have nothing.