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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 schoolteacher.
   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.
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/9/98