John D. Fairfield
Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m currently working on several projects. I recently drafted an essay on my late friend/mentor/editor Zane L. Miller called “’The Metropolitan Mode of Thought’: Zane L. Miller and the History of Ideas.” I hope it will be part of a retrospective on Miller’s career (including several excerpts from the unfinished manuscript he left behind) that I am working on with Larry Bennett and Patty Mooney-Melvin. I’m also writing something on Jesuit pedagogy and education for sustainability for a project that my Xavier colleague Kathleen Smythe is heading up. With my students, I’ve recently finished a little history of Oakley (a Cincinnati neighborhood) and am working on another one on Avondale (another Cincinnati neighborhood). I’m currently finishing an article on “The City Beautiful Movement, 1890-1920” for The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. That last work intersects with my current book project on urban sustainability and human ecology. The basic argument is that urban sustainability is not a new thing. The success or failure of cities has always depended on their ability to construct productive ecologies and to manage precarious settlements. We have not, however, fully developed the knowledge of human ecology that should guide those efforts. I think what unites all my interests, from the beginning, is urban space. I did a book on city planning, a book on public experience, and now human ecology; urban space is there in all that.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
Most of my teaching is in two programs at Xavier, the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public honors program (PPP) and the M.A. in urban sustainability and resilience (MA URS) that I designed and co-direct with my colleague Elizabeth Blume (a former city planner in Dayton and Cincinnati). In the PPP program, I teach a course called “Constructing the Public” that examines political culture, political philosophy, and urban experience and a course called “Writing in Public” that explores the historical and philosophical roots of contemporary issues (the subject changes every semester as the course is blocked with a political science course where the students engage in legislative politics, trying to advance an issue). In the MA URS program, I teach a course called “Urban Ecologies and Urban Economies” that looks at the intersections, collisions, and synergies between urban ecologies and economies. I also teach (with a member of the City of Cincinnati’s Planning Department, James Weaver) a course on Urban History, Geography, and GIS. Weaver does the heavy lifting in that class, teaching the students how to use the ArcGIS software. My role in the PPP program came out of the work I did for my book The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (Temple University Press, 2010). The MA URS courses come out of my current research on urban sustainability and human ecology.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I recall as a young faculty member hearing senior faculty describe work for encyclopedias and other research guides as the grunt work of the profession (they sometimes used a less gentle adjective). But I’ve always enjoyed doing such work and I believe it gets read more than anything else I write. A recent piece I did on “Green Cities and Sustainability” for The CQ Press Guide for Urban Politics and Policy in the United States (CQ Press, 2016) gives me great satisfaction. It also has provided me with something of a blueprint for my current book project. But the work I am most anxious to see is my partner and Xavier colleague Rachel Chrastil’s “historical companion to childlessness in the 21st century” (currently under review). Although I’ve lived a “child-full” life (having four children and now a grandson), I find Rachel’s work to be illuminating about all the most important things about life, from enjoying it and making a contribution to finding meaning and leaving a legacy. It’s a book we very much need today, not least because if we are to seriously address our mounting environmental challenges, childlessness is likely to be an experience that more and more people share in the coming years.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
Well, I’d tell them it’s the right place to be. If you recall the talk about imbrication and the dangers of meta-narratives and interdisciplinarity and all that, cities demand it. They are so complex, so many things are always going on, there are so many dimensions to everything, that you can never be tempted by mono-causation or totalizing narratives. History and especially historians can never have the whole urban story and so you must branch out into philosophy, sociology, political science, literary theory, economics, ecology, and so much more. I’d also tell them about something I read long ago, when I was in graduate school. I believe it appeared in the Journal of Urban History, in Bruce Stave’s interview of Sam Bass Warner, Jr. (the first one, in 1974, although I just looked it up and couldn’t find the passage). But Warner (or whomever it was) essentially said it takes all kinds, just write what you can, there is no one way to do history. Here was this giant of the profession saying that and I didn’t know what I could write, if anything, but that sounded encouraging; write what I can, there’s all sorts of contributions to make. I later got the same thing from Elvis Costello, in an interview about his anti-capital punishment song, “Let Him Dangle,” where he said we all have to find our own way to contribute. It takes all kinds; write what you can. Read and write and talk and read and write some more.
What’s your favorite history book to recommend to non-historians?
The book that drove me back to graduate school to study cities was Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. I was just out of college, working as a glorified clerk (a “paralegal”) at a big-time New York City law firm with a roster of evil clients. I took that book everywhere I went in the city and read it every spare minute I got, cover to cover. Sure, it suffers from the great man theory of history and perhaps isn’t entirely fair to Moses, but what a story, what a canvas. I went to many of the places Caro wrote about (some of them on one of Ken Jackson’s early midnight bicycle tours) and it fired my imagination and ambition. Somewhat more recently, I’ve found Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors, Jeffrey Sanders, Seattle & the Roots of Urban Sustainability, and Andrew Needham, Power Lines to be stimulating reading. But here’s a test for any non-historian. Take a look at three very different books, Mike Davis, City of Quartz, Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America, and Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of American Whigs. If you don’t find something in at least one of those books that you find fascinating, then maybe you just don’t like history.