Department of History

Dr. John Fairfield

Professor, History Department

Although (or perhaps because) I grew up in the suburbs, I developed an early fascination with cities, first kindled on youthful excursions to Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, and, somewhat later, Shea and Yankee Stadiums. I lived and worked in New York City after graduation from college (from the University of Rochester), first at a law firm and then as a taxi driver, experiences which cemented my love of and curiosity about cities. I read Robert Caro's The Powerbroker (a biography of the city and regional planner Robert Moses) during those years (I lugged it everywhere) which led me back to graduate school. Although the University of Rochester lacked a formal program in urban history, I crafted my own focus on cities which has always given me a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to urban history. As a student of the late Christopher Lasch, I've developed a distinctive approach to cities, one concerned with the seedbeds of civic virtue and the ways in which the mind and character of the citizen are formed.

At Xavier, I developed a variety of courses with an urban focus, from "African-American intellectual traditions" and "baseball and American culture" to "movies and cities" and "the ecology of the city." In 2004 I began teaching in Xavier's Philosophy, Politics, and the Public honors program (PPP), which I helped to design. My colleague Professor Gene Beaupre and I developed a year-long block of four courses for the PPP program that combined an investigation of the history and philosophy of American politics and civic life with experiential learning in electoral and legislative politics. When Gene retired, Professor Sean Comer, one of our former students in the program, became my new partner in the block. I have been blessed to have worked with these two exceptional teachers.


In 2014, I began teaching (and co-directing) in Xavier’s Master of Arts in Urban Sustainability and Resilience, another program I helped to design with my colleague Liz Blume (a city planner and community organizer). My contributions to that program include a seminar on “urban ecologies, urban economies” and a course on urban geography that is organized around learning to use geographic information systems (specifically the mapping software ArcGIS). The Masters program has recently been combined with the MA in Private Interests, Public Good that came out of the PPP program. I am currently serving on interim director of Xavier’s undergraduate program in “economics, sustainability, and society” (ECOS) and working to better align Xavier’s various sustainability programs.


My scholarship focuses on cities as well. My first big project, based on my dissertation, examined the emergence of professional city planning in the United States. That work resulted in The Mysteries of the Great City: The Politics of Urban Design (Ohio State University Press, 1993). My second project, long is production, focused on public space, public experience, and civic culture. That work culminated in The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (Temple University Press, 2010).


My current project began as an historical study of urban sustainability. I argue that green urbanism “is a continuation of a long history of making American cities healthy, productive, and satisfying places to live” (as I put it in my contribution to the Congressional Quarterly Guide to Urban Politics and Policy in the United States (CQ Press, 2016). But that project has expanded over the past few years of political division and increasing environmental dangers. I am now completing that project under the tentative title, Green Populism: From Urban Sustainability to Regional Resilience.


I love to write and do so as part of teaching. Much of my research begins in new courses just as much of my writing begins as classroom handouts. The discipline of teaching encourages me to write for general audience rather than exclusively for other professionals. I have also tried to make the wide variety of courses I have taught a virtue in my scholarship which tends toward the synthetic and transdisciplinary.


Outside my professional life, I am an amateur builder, an avid gardener, a long-distance cyclist, and a joyful cook. I built the house in Indiana where my four children grew up. I live now in Cincinnati and devote considerable time to my garden that meanders across my backyard in search of scarce sunlight. I have been doing long bike rides since I was sixteen years old, including hundreds of miles of trips in over a dozen states. In the past few years, I have developed a taste for one-day, hundred-mile bikes rides. I do between twenty and thirty every summer on the beautiful Little Miami bike trail east of Cincinnati. I cook most evenings and have found the challenge of a more or less vegetarian diet to be a great stimulus to my culinary imagination.  


U.S. history, urban history

First Year at Xavier




  • BA, MA, PhD (University of Rochester)