Throughout U.S. history, our unrealized civic aspirations provide the essential counterpoint to an excessive focus on private interests
The Public and Its Possibilities
Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City
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John D. Fairfield
In his compelling reinterpretation of American history, The Public and Its Possibilities, John Fairfield argues that our unrealized civic aspirations provide the essential counterpoint to an excessive focus on private interests. Inspired by the revolutionary generation, nineteenth-century Americans struggled to build an economy and a culture to complement their republican institutions. But over the course of the twentieth century, a corporate economy and consumer culture undercut civic values, conflating consumer and citizen.
Fairfield places the city at the center of American experience, describing how a resilient demand for an urban participatory democracy has bumped up against the fog of war, the allure of the marketplace, and persistent prejudices of race, class, and gender. In chronicling and synthesizing centuries of U.S. history—including the struggles of the antislavery, labor, women’s rights movements—Fairfield explores the ebb and flow of civic participation, activism, and democracy. He revisits what the public has done for civic activism, and the possibility of taking a greater role.
In this age where there has been a move towards greater participation in America's public life from its citizens, Fairfield’s book—written in an accessible, jargon-free style and addressed to general readers—is especially topical.
"As long ago as the 1920s Frederick Jackson Turner suggested an urban interpretation of American history; John Fairfield takes up that challenge. A hope long since abandoned to monographic specialization in the field has been happily realized in the powerful work of synthesis crafted by John Fairfield. The Public and Its Possibilities is a smart, imaginatively conceived and researched, well written, and passionately told history of the challenges and possibilities of a lively urban democratic public."
"A work of historical synthesis and political criticism, John Fairfield’s book is a powerful reminder of the indispensable role of American cities in fostering a more expansive civic culture. Fairfield writes in the tradition of Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, and Jane Jacobs—alert to the ever-changing landscape of streets and plazas, public institutions, and informal associations that have enabled city residents of different backgrounds to imagine themselves as citizens and act accordingly. And like those urbanist critics, Fairfield is acutely aware that the market fundamentalism that has devastated many American cities has had equally devastating consequences for our capacity for democratic self-government. His concluding call for a new ‘ecology of the city’ could not be more timely."
"One of the many overarching themes Fairfield addresses, the one that most effectively conveys the evolution of the US city is civic activism. The author connects this theme to virtually every other historical topic, such as women's rights, labor, economics, and ultimately, urban ecology, in a most convincing manner. Although this is a scholarly work, general readers will find the prose accessible and stimulating. Summing Up: Recommended."
"John Fairfield is concerned about the health of the American body politic and the state of our national conversation.... [His] book opens up this conversation. We have a lot to talk about."
"Fairfield's writing is excellent throughout. He has somehow managed to condense entire book-shelves of work into seamless, quote-rich prose. ... The city comes into true focus only in his superb last chapter, which pegs twentieth century civic decline to the relative post-WWII fortunes of cities and suburbs. Fairfield's chronicle of post-war urban decay is the best short summary I have seen."
"John Fairfield offers a passionate reading of American political history that tries to reinvigorate democratic traditions in the face of neoliberal capitalism....It is thickly argued, deeply embedded in 40 years of historical scholarship, and filled with references to people, organizations, and events.... [He] has provided a valuable book that will stimulate and inspire its readers—perhaps to argument and hopefully to action."
"The book narrates a rise and fall of public democracy.... The last section...offers Fairfield’s argument at its strongest, demonstrating the massive resource mobilization that solidified the postwar transformation of America — from highway construction and suburban mortgage subsidies to industrial decentralization, the rise of 'homeowner populism and the fragmentation of metropolitan government,' and urban dispossession through 'redevelopment and renewal.'"
"The Public and Its Possibilities is a highly readable book that covers a great deal of ground and successfully delineates the resurgent efforts by various groups to reinvigorate American democracy. Its picture of the transformation of the Republican Party from defender of abolition to bulwark of propertied conservativism is perhaps its most compelling part....[T]his is a book well worth reading and assigning."
"An ambitious work of scholarly synthesis, The Public and its Possibilities braids together descriptions of socioeconomic trends, cultural conflicts and political philosophy from the late colonial era to the present... Resting on vast historical scholarship, The Public and its Possibilities would provide a useful interpretive spine for an undergraduate history course, comparable in some ways to Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom."
"In The Public and its Possibilities, John D Fairfield synthesizes the work of a multitude of scholars to give a detailed overview of the trajectory of the public throughout American history. It is an impressive survey of American social, political and labour history as seen through the lens of a civic public created through deliberation and engaged with political questions.... The Public and Its Possibilities is a wonderful resource for understanding how a democratic public has been imagined, promoted and repressed throughout the history of the USA. It chronicles the centrality of the urban to the democratic public and makes a significant argument for the importance of cities to our social and political health."
"[A] sweeping account of democracy in urban America...Fairfield’s impressive synthesis brings together decades of secondary literature covering American urban and political history in a narrative that locates the city as the testing ground for more expansive definitions of citizenship and national belonging."
Preface: The Public and Its Possibilities
Part I. Civic Aspirations and Market Development in a Long Age of Revolution
Part II. Popular Culture, Political Culture: Building a Democratic Public
Part III. The Public in Progressivism and War
Part IV. A Democracy of Consumers
In the series
Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy, edited by Zane L. Miller, David Stradling, and Larry Bennett.
Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by Zane L. Miller, David Stradling, and Larry Bennett, features books that examine past and contemporary cities, focusing on cultural and social issues. The editors seek proposals that analyze processes of urban change relevant to the future of cities and their metropolitan regions, and that examine urban and regional planning, environmental issues, and urban policy studies, thus contributing to ongoing debates.