Buzz Bissinger prays for the city

Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling author and Penn graduate Buzz Bissinger has vivid memories of the kinds of images and emotions a city should evoke, and they're not of lavish stage shows or Center City glitz or the posh retail and restaurant emporiums of Walnut Street.

"I'm a product of cities; they're places that are alive, that when you're walking down the street, they're an onslaught upon the senses," Bissinger said. "And I do fear that's being lost."

The depressed state of the American city, and Philadelphia in particular in recent years, set off a "deep feeling of sorrow" in Bissinger while working at the Philadelphia Inquirer in the mid-1980s.

His new book, "A Prayer for the City" (Random House), details the dire affairs of Philadelphia's urban evolution and Mayor Ed Rendell's attempt to bring the city back from the brink.

To chronicle Philadelphia's comeback, Rendell gave Bissinger unlimited access to the workings of his administration, and Bissinger blended in with the City Hall set for four years. Now, with the book's publication, he's feeling good, but anxious about its promotion.

"It's a nerve-wracking time for authors," Bissinger said, "when you've had this child with you five years and you have to let go of it and worry how people will react to it."

With rave reviews already pouring in, Bissinger can relax. He's come a long way since his on-campus days as a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian.

When he graduated in 1976, the era of Watergate, newspapers were hot, and Bissinger applied to 307 of them. He landed "exactly one job" from the resumes, on Norfolk, Va.'s Ledger-Star, where he covered cops and courts for $180 a week. "I was just delighted to get paid to write," he said.

He worked his way "up the chain," landing at the Inquirer in 1981. With reporter Dan Biddle, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his criminal court system investigation. By that time, Bissinger had developed a penchant for lengthy prose and the better story-telling opportunities more developed pieces offered.

So, in 1990, he headed for Odessa, Texas, where he found fodder for his first book, "Friday Night Lights," a best-seller about high school football in small-town Texas.

The success of "Friday Night Lights" was gratifying and a bit daunting," Bissinger said. Whatever the eventual monetary success of "A Prayer for the City," Bissinger has pulled off a major achievement in analyzing the city's quest for survival by putting human faces and struggles behind his rock-solid reporting.

"There is a lot of heroism in this city," Bissinger said. "Ed has done a marvelous job, but after all he's done, this is still a city on the brink."

Despite the book's somewhat bleak message, Bissinger said, "Cities do have a prayer. They need some realistic help, but some wonderful things have happened."

And, in his book, Bissinger writes that though "A Prayer for the City" started from a feeling of loss, "it has its foundation in the strength of the human spirit."

Buzz Bissinger will read and sign books at Barnes and Noble Bookstore, 1805 Walnut Street, on Friday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. Other events are being planned by the Kelly Writers House and the College Alumni Society in February.

Originally published on January 14, 1998