Tag Archives: Environmental History

Member of the Week: John Fairfield

Fairfield head shotJohn 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.

The Power of Urban Improvisation: Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City

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Phillip Pittman, Plan of New Orleans, 1770, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Famed geographer Carl Suer once wrote: “Culture is the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape the result.” To put it less eloquently, people shape the landscape through husbandry, conservation, and architecture, and the end results speak volumes.

While New Orleans might not be the perfect encapsulation of such an idea, as evidenced by Lawrence Powell in his 2012 work, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality. The self interest of founder Sieur de Bienville—coupled with French distraction at humanitarian disaster along the Gulf Coast and in France itself— enabled Beinville to direct settlers to the developing, flood prone settlement. Bienville ignored, and actively plotted against, French plans to establish a colonial city at Bayou Manchac or even Biloxi. Land grants and slaves proffered to new arrivals in exchange for their residence quickly built up the local population.

With rising numbers of slaves and colonists, Bienville had established a demographic threshold beyond those of his colonial counterparts. By late November of 1721, and despite insect infestations, disease, floods, political rivalry, and official condemnation from France, New Orleans emerged as the most “densely settled territory along the entire Mississippi.” Over 450 persons resided in today’s French Quarter; nearly another 450 along St. Bayou St. John and in the Chapitoulas District. Counting the West Bank settlements that stretched from modern day Algiers Point to English Turn, over 1,200 people resided in the region. A great number of those counted were slaves, mostly African and some Native American; none willingly residing in the area, but as Powell writes, numbers were numbers “whether black, red or white. And to the extent that demographic facts might carry weight at the end of the day, no one could deny Bienville was holding a strong hand.”[1]

Bienville’s machinations provide an instructive lens from which to view Powell’s book and the history of New Orleans it presents. From the outset, the New Orleans economy seemed to produce more money for itself than its colonial masters; residents did so by hook or by crook, engaging in economic pursuits beyond the purview of officialdom that far more often flowed into the coffers of locals more than into European capitals overseas. This viewpoint makes greater sense when one considers how many masters the city endured: French, Spanish, and of course American. The town always figured out a way to line its own pockets; smuggling, vice, and black markets frequently made up for much of the city’s economy. Second, but no less important the physical environment deeply impacted its culture in at least two ways: the introduction of slavery to build infrastructure and establish an economy and the sense of fatalism due to frequent storms, floods, and fires that seemed to beset the city.

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Plan showing the the boundaries of the great conflagration of 21st of March 1788, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Slavery, as was the case in much of the New World, played a central role in New Orleans’ growth, though much differently than its Anglo neighbors to the northeast. Plantation slavery grew much faster than in the English colonies where it began on a smaller scale and slaves largely came from the West Indies. With the explosion of tobacco and later cotton, the English colonies transformed from “societies with slaves” to “full fledged slave societies where the norms of agro-export plantation agriculture permeated all areas of life: the economy, culture, law, politics.” In contrast, Louisiana experienced what Powell describes as the “big bang of slavery” almost overnight, incorporating large-scale slavery into its economy and culture. Though according to scholars such as Jennifer Spear and Emily Epstein Landau, it took decades before Louisiana “became a settled plantation society.”[2] Slavery imprinted itself onto the New Orleans landscape very early and attempts at state regulation followed. The Code Noir, to paraphrase Powell, did not gradually crystallize from experience but instead arrived as law, fully-grown, drawn largely from Saint Domingue’s 1685 slave code.[3]

Needless to say, it would be slaves that pulled “Louisiana and New Orleans out of the mud.” They built the infrastructure of its early streets, drainage systems, and levees that would prove vital to the city’s survival. They populated the city and brought artisan skills sorely lacking among its white settlers. Slaves hailing from Senegal largely designed and built “the complex drainage and mortar and pestle technology of rice cultivation” that saved the colony from starvation. “France may have founded Louisiana … but it was slaves from Senegal and Congo who laid the foundation,” writes Powell.[4] In 1731, the African slave trade ended when the Companies of the Indies relinquished its charter; creole slaves would fill the void. Together, Africans and creoles not only shaped its physical landscape but also nearly every other aspect of New Orleans life.

“The creation of a hybrid culture – a Creole culture, whose whole was always greater than the sum of its ethnic parts,” notes Powell, “is one of the Atlantic World’s most vital contributions to modernity.”[5] The French and Haitian Revolutions furthered such developments as refugees from both settled in New Orleans. The addition of Spanish and later American rule added additional cultural flavors and an ad-hoc sense of addressing problems. “They say New Orleans was a Creole city,” Powell muses, but “It’s probably just as accurate to call it a creolized city, for that’s how the place was cobbled together – from the bricolage of cultural borrowings and solutions improvised on the fly.”[6]

As often is the case with colonies, the distance from the home country gave settlers and colonial leaders a certain amount of license. Attempts to build a large-scale tobacco industry failed; the climate simply would not allow for the production of a high quality product that could compete with that of its English competitors. Smuggling, gambling, and other forms of vice laid a basic economic foundation for residents, and this underground economy even drew in the ruling classes. This distance also led to a great deal of interracial interaction ranging from business dealings and gambling wagers in the backrooms of taverns to sexual couplings in the bedrooms of the common and elite.

Mixed race sexual relations occurred from the city’s founding. Male settlers first cohabited with local Native American women and while institutionalizing relationships between enslaved and free peoples through marriage was not legal, sexual relations were common and in many cases led to the growing free black population. “For here, especially during the Spanish period, interracial unions were a significant well spring of free black growth,” writes Powell. By 1791, the free black community made up 20 percent of New Orleans’s population and within that 20 percent over half were of racially mixed ancestry.[7]

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I. Tanesse, William Rollinson, Charles Del Vecchio, and P. Maspero, Plan of the city and suburbs of New Orleans: from an actual survey in 1815, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

For readers not versed in New Orleans history prior to incorporation into the U.S., as is the case with this writer, Spain’s influence on New Orleans might prove surprising. Powell credits Spain with the city’s iconic “vernacular architecture.” Spanish colonial rulers even established New Orleans’ first public market, The French Market. However, Spain struggled to deliver comprehensive infrastructure projects. This was not unique to the Spanish. The physical environment often proved simply too powerful an actor for any governing body. “New Orleans’ quasi liquid landscape continually mocked European efforts to erase nature from the landscape,” Powell points out.[8]

As always, an exception to this rule existed. By the end of the eighteenth century the levee system, though problematic, still subject to seepage, and vulnerable to inundation, did largely avoid mass flooding. The town, however, remained filthy: “the wet garbage of New Orleans seemed nastier than the dry garbage elsewhere.”[9]

Powell also highlights the ways in which Spanish slave policy, though hardly humane, contributed to a growing free black population that would influence the city in countless ways. The colonial Spanish caste system, though clearly invested in racial hierarchy, had some fluidity. Individuals could change their racial status. ‘The truly remarkable feature about the sistema de castas was its malleability,” Powell points out. “Racial identity might be ascribed at birth, bit it wasn’t fixed at birth.” The system could be “played,” and baptism, marriage, and acquired wealth were just three ways to “lighten” one’s complexion and advance up the colonial Spanish caste system. One can find similar examples in Spanish and Mexican California.

Yet this malleability also led many free blacks to invest in the same system. After all, if one could find “cracks” in the system to advance socially and economically, that system might be worth protecting: “And herein lay the genius of the caste system: it encouraged subaltern classes to be unequal partners in erecting this distinctive tripartite structure of racial segmentation.”[10] Oppressors might have imposed the system, but, to paraphrase Gramsci, hegemony takes work. In this case, free blacks shared the work with New Orleans’s European settlers.

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Benjamin Moore Norman, Henry Mollhausen and Shields and Hammong, Norman’s plan of New Orleans & environs, 1845, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

In The Accidental City, Powell synthesizes a wealth of scholarship on the city and in doing so covers a great deal more ground than that which is discussed here. Much of the book’s first half explores the economics and politics of colonial New Orleans, while the second half devotes more attention to the ramifications of slavery and the creation of a creole culture. It largely ends with American rule of the city, though he does spend some time describing the tightening of racial lines and other aspects of the city’s incorporation into the United States.

Stylistically, Powell is more gifted than most; the Tulane professor knows how to turn a phrase. When discussing the end of the French period, Powell describes the city’s improvisational nature, flouting of Enlightenment ideals, and wayward relationship to the law as “though the entire town had been populated with inhabitants parachuted from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”[11] The shift in architecture and urban planning during the Spanish period meant the spilling out of the city’s boundaries physically and demographically; the expansion of Creole cottages with four square rooms, most with a front room louvered door and “a shuttered casement window that peered out on the street like some heavy lidded favorite uncle.”[12] The increased number of freed slaves, while under Spanish rule, though not welcome, were eventually accepted by slave owners since “replacement costs were defrayed by cash provided by self purchaser whom the new slaves were replacing. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the road to freedom was paved with the millstones of bondage”[13] One could go on with other examples.

Admittedly, women make far fewer appearances than men. Powell devotes several pages to the efforts and political stature of the Ursuline Nuns and there is some discussion of women in more general terms be they enslaved, free women of color, or white, but whether due to lack of sources or scholarship on the subject, they remain largely a secondary focus, not exactly ignored but also not at the forefront.

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Currier and Ives, The city of New Orleans, and the Mississippi River Lake Pontchartrain in distance, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

In the end, The Accidental City accomplishes quite a lot. For anyone starting their work on New Orleans or who issimply interested in dipping their toe into the city’s rich history, the book offers much. Powell’s love for the city comes through clearly. He believes it to be a singular contribution to global society. More than “a mere entrepot for a continent” the city emerged as a “state of mind built on the edge of disaster. The people of three continents of innumerable races and ethnic backgrounds “were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learned to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture.”[14]

 

[1] Lawrence Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), 55.

[2] Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009); Emily Epstein Landau, Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013), 34.

[3] Powell, The Accidental City, 72-73.

[4] Powell, The Accidental City, 74.

[5] Powell, The Accidental City, 97.

[6] Powell, The Accidental City, 205.

[7] Powell, The Accidental City, 286.

[8] Powell, The Accidental City, 205.

[9] Powell, The Accidental City, 207.

[10] Powell, The Accidental City, 294-296.

[11] Powell, The Accidental City, 120.

[12] Powell, The Accidental City, 202.

[13] Powell, The Accidental City, 283.

[14] Powell, The Accidental City, 163.