Before Finals began consuming my every waking, non-work thought, I read the thoroughly fantastic account of the near-death of Philadelphia, Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City.
Last night, as I scooped up a pile of books to return to the library, I stopped and flipped through Prayer, looking for a passage that has been gnawing at me since I read it earlier this month. On page 372, I found it, transcribed it, and bolded the parts that have been haunting me:
“There was no mystery as to why people were leaving the city. Regardless of what Rendell had accomplished, the city’s pull was still almost purely an emotional one. Those who stayed did so on the basis of loyalty, or because of a job, or because the qualities that had turned so many away from cities were the very qualities that enticed them – difference, diversity, diversion. By any economic basis, the basis on which most people made decisions, the city was still noncompetitive with its surrounding suburbs to the point of impotence. Taxes were still far too high. The perception of crime, far more corrosive than actual crime figures themselves, had not been ameliorated. The school system continued to flop and flounder and had the trust of no one, in large part because of endemic problems, but also because the mayor, cowed by the politics, had never brought to the schools anywhere near the intensity that he had given to the union negotiations, or the budget, or economic development. Those who went to a public school in the city had little faith. Those who did not were forced to pay the burden of the city’s greatest hidden tax – private and parochial schools – until they could no longer afford it, or got tired of affording it, and moved across the boundary.”
[Context: During Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s first term (1992-1996), Bissinger was allowed unprecedented access to the mayor and his advisors, and chronicled the story of a dying city that had lost $2 billion of its tax base during the prior 20 years and was facing a deficit of $1.246 billion. The city had lost 400,000 people between 1960 and 1990, including a 30% drop in the number of mid-income families, and had a poverty rate of 20%.]
Now, just as Elgin isn’t Detroit, nor are we Philadelphia. America’s truly big cities – and Philadelphia was once the third-largest – have always faced far greater challenges. But some parts of the passage certainly rang true.
Our city is safer than every city of similar size in Illinois, save Naperville, and yet the old perceptions of crime still loom heavily in many people’s minds.
The schools problem rings very true, too. As our local U46 begins its new school year, many continue to send their children to private and parochial schools because they don’t trust the local district. In Philadelphia, during Rendell’s tenure, the Mayor appointed the school board, and thus had oodles more direct accountability. That isn’t the case in Elgin, where our school board is elected, but the “hidden tax” certainly is.
In response to my last post about bringing technology education and training to town, I had Facebook posts that mentioned the vital importance of primary education. People don’t quibble as much when high school taxes go to a district that performs very well. But when their taxes are high and they don’t think the schools are good enough for their children, they either pay the hidden tax of private schools, or move.
More thoughts on this after Finals are over and I can breathe again, but I wanted to start the ball rolling while it was fresh in mind. I don’t have kids, so my experience with the schools is purely perception, but that’s part of the problem. Even if the schools are fine, they are perceived as quite the opposite.
We must work together to fix our schools (and, just as importantly, their perception) before we lose more good residents and before more decide against moving to Elgin in the first place. In an era of terrible funding challenges, this is a gigantically tall order, but not impossible. Suggestions on how we start?
I highly, highly recommend the book. Bissinger weaves together several stories of average citizens and their struggles, from a welder in the doomed shipyard, a city employee, a prosecutor and a woman raising her great-grandchildren, while incorporating the years he spend with Rendell and his chief of staff. Plus, he’s a fantastic writer and storyteller.