Member of the Week: Robert Fairbanks

Photo #2Robert B. Fairbanks, PhD

University of Texas at Arlington

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently researching the growth of the so-called suburban cities of the Southwest. One of the hallmarks of modern metropolitan America after World War II is the growth of huge suburban cities. Currently, Mesa, Arizona, is the 38th largest “city” in America while Arlington, Texas, is the 50th largest “city.” Although neither has the look or feel of a traditional city, both of these share many of the characteristics associated with modern cities including a diverse population, numerous manufacturing plants, large office buildings, massive retail outlets, cultural institutions and serious traffic problems. Some suburban cities may have started out as small rural towns on the fringe of the city, or possibly emerged as bedroom suburbs after World War II, but from my study of North Texas suburbs it became clear that some civic leaders in these communities had larger visions for creating a new type of city in metropolitan America. Although big city spillover explains the growth of suburban cities to some degree, these places became more than “accidental cities” due to civic leadership that embraced planning, boosterism and aggressive annexation that would result in a new type of city. I was drawn to this topic because I have lived and taught at the university here in Arlington for over 35 years and have become curious about why it and places like it in the Southwest developed the way they did. Were they merely accidental, as Robert Beauregard has suggested, or something more? Moreover, since neither Mesa nor Arlington has attracted the kind of scholarly attention they deserve I thought these suburban cities deserved some a closer look and believe that such a study would contribute to a better understanding of larger trends in the history of the metropolitan Southwest.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I currently teach an upper division undergraduate course entitled Cities and Suburbs in U.S. American History. I have been able to integrate my previous research in the history of housing reform, urban renewal and urban politics in the Southwest to the course and to provide more attention to the history of the urban Southwest, the focus of my scholarship, than one would expect at a Midwestern university. I also teach a Colloquium in Transatlantic urban history at the graduate level that draws less from my actual research and more from the background reading in this new field. Although I am not teaching the History of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex this semester, I do regularly offer this class as a case study of urban history and rely heavily on my research on Dallas and now Fort Worth for that class which includes lectures, readings and field trips to both Dallas and Fort Worth.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I am very pleased that Temple University Press has now published my book, The War On Slums in the Southwest, in paperback because this allows it to be used in courses and to reach a wider audience.   Although I focus on the various efforts to eradicate slums in five Southwestern cities from the 1930s to the 1960s, a topic previously little studied, the book is more than a regional study and I hope my conceptual approach which traces how the war on slums gives way to the war on poverty will have some impact on how we think about federal policy in this area.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I would encourage young scholars in graduate school to develop networks within and without the university. It is so important to share your research with others and not only have them read what you write but for you to read what they have written and learn from them. Attendance at conferences can be pricey but the ability to interact with one’s peers from across the country as well as meet more established scholars is important professionally because many of these people will become life-long friends. Finally, you should select a research topic that really interests you since you will be spending a lot of time focused on it.

What museum or historical site would you recommend to urban historians visiting the city where you live?

Although the Sixth Floor Museum, which retells the story of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, is tasteful and evocative for those who lived through it, my recommendation is go to the nearby Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture. Located in the beautifully restored Old Red County Courthouse built in 1892 in the oldest section of Dallas, the museum includes four galleries that present the chronological history of the city using historical artifacts, as well as various touch screen computers, an educational learning center, and four theaters that run well-crafted 15-minute films for each section.

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