• 368 pages
  • 6 x 9
  • Price: $28.95
  • EAN: 9781439902110
  • Publication: Jan 2012
  • Price: $76.50
  • EAN: 9781439902103
  • Publication: Mar 2010
  • Price: $28.95
  • EAN: 9781439902127

The Public and its Possibilities

Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City

John 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.


"A sustained argument about the repeated and resilient assertion of public democracy in American cities, and the forces that inhibited and subverted its full expression." - Mary Ryan, John Martin Vincent Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University

"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." —Thomas Bender, New York University

"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." —Casey Nelson Blake, Columbia University

"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." —CHOICE

"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." —The Cutting Edge

"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." —Contemporary Sociology

"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 Journal of Urban Affairs

"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 Journal of American History

"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." —Perspectives on Politics

"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." —Urban Studies

"(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." —Journal of Urban History

About the Author(s)

John D. Fairfield is Professor of History at Xavier University and the author of The Mysteries of the Great City: The Politics of Urban Design, 1877-1937.

In the Series

Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy

The Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy series, edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, Davarian Baldwin, and Yue Zhang, was founded by the late Zane L. Miller to publish books that examine past and contemporary cities. While preserving the series’ foundational focus on the policy, planning, and environmental issues so central to metropolitan life, we also join scholarly efforts to push the boundaries of urban studies. We are committed to publishing work at the shifting intersections of cultural production, community formation, and political economy that shape cities at all scales, from the neighborhood to the transnational. Proposals may be submitted to Temple University Press Editor-in-Chief Aaron Javsicas or the series editors at the email addresses linked above. 

In honor of Zane Miller, the late founding editor of our series, Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy, we invite first-time authors to apply for a grant of up to $2,500 to help advance the careers of scholars from underrepresented communities with limited financial resources.  For more information, Zane L. Miller Book Development Award