On the eve of the mayoral election, another prayer for the city

20151102-Saleem-West-vigil
Vigil Monday night for Saleem West, 16, who was killed in barrage of bullets while riding his bike yesterday in North Philly.

I AM A BAD Philadelphian.

I just started reading A Prayer for the City, a book I was repeatedly told was pretty much required reading when I moved here three years ago.

The book by author Buzz Bissinger is about Mayor Ed Rendell's first term. It's 400-plus pages, but I barely got through the prologue before a quote from Rendell stopped me cold:

"Gratuitous, senseless, f---ing violence," Rendell roared in response to violence that was bringing down the city.

What a brutally familiar ring that has, on another mayoral Election Day and in the wake of an especially violent weekend in which 14 people were shot, one of them a 16-year-old who later died.

What a depressing reminder that as far as this city has come, it remains a city in need of prayer - lots of it.

There are things going right in Philadelphia (population growth, construction boom, more parks and trails and beer gardens), but until we confront the Wild West-style of gunplay that spills blood on our streets on a daily basis, the progress will be fleeting.

If the city doesn't cut down the violence, all the new buildings and restaurants and beer gardens aren't going to mean squat.

As of yesterday morning 1,031 Philadelphians had been shot this year, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. That's up from 887 the same time last year. Among those who have been shot this year, 195 have died. Also up from last year's 186.

Among the dead is 16-year-old Saleem West. He was shot Sunday once in the back on Sedgley Avenue near 22nd Street in North Philadelphia.

Even as West's classmates began to mourn him on social media this weekend, his sixth-grade teacher, Stephen Flemming, was doing a little praying of his own on Twitter.

"I hope [the report West was shot is] wrong. I really do. I hope it's completely wrong," wrote Flemming, who teaches at John B. Kelly Elementary School in Germantown.

It wasn't. Today, police confirmed that the young man Flemming had in his class five years ago had been gunned down while riding his bike with a friend. Police said West and a 15-year-old friend were riding bicycles when they got into an altercation with four men in a car.

The boys rode away when they saw the car had pulled over. Seventeen shots rang out.

Police Capt. Nicholas Brown told reporters that a possible motive might be road rage, but that's a lot of bullets to fire at two kids over some traffic slight.

Yesterday, after walking his third-graders to lunch, Flemming said he was devastated. Losing one of his kids to violence is always a concern. West was the first.

At the start of the year, Flemming has his students write their dreams on a card and sign and date them. He jokes that this way they can't pretend not to know him when they get famous.

After he heard about West, he dug out his card and hung it on his classroom door. Dated Sept. 8 2010, it read: "When I grow up I wanna be a famous NBA player."

For a product of and now a teacher in the Philadelphia school system who has had to deal with deep cutbacks and now the loss of a student, he was surprisingly hopeful about the city's future.

Politicians, he said, "promise and try and do what they can. But this has to be on all of us. I hope this is call to action for everyone. We can't give up. We have to keep pushing."

Interestingly, that sounded a lot like something else Rendell said in A Prayer for the City. After spending the night with the young sons of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, an emotional Rendell spoke to a crowd about his frustrations with a city that others had written off, but that he seemed certain was salvageable.

"All of it doesn't mean we stop trying," Rendell said. "To the contrary, we redouble our efforts, and we're all in it together. Not everyone realizes it, but it is the case."

Prayer without action is just wishful thinking in my book. But if I had one prayer for this city, for the next mayor and for all the people who live and work in this profoundly flawed, but fearless, city, it's that we heed Rendell's words.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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