An interview with Buzz BissingerBuzz 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.
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.
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 schoolteacher.
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.
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."