The Mysteries of the Great City

The Politics of Urban Design, 1877–1937

John D. Fairfield

“Richly fulfilling the tenor of its main title, John D. Fairfield's The Mysteries of the Great City is a complex and subtle synthesis and rereading of a number of episodes that should be familiar to many urban historians. . . . Although John Fairfield has provided a wealth of detail, some of it unfamiliar, for stories we thought we knew well, his efforts to reshape the ways we think about the lineage of twentieth-century city building are his most important contribution. . . . He has written a provocative book” —The Journal of American History

“[This study] traces two major strains of thought that contributed to the emerging city planning ideology during its formative years: an idealistic, republican vision of an urban commonwealth free of class conflict and shaped by Christian ethics; and a realist ideology, increasingly elitist and professionalized, that sought to manage rather than to resolve class conflict and urban problems. . . . This is an excellent study that is rich in nuance, careful in its analysis, and effectively written. . . . A challenging study that is highly recommended for readers interested in urban life.” —Choice

“[His] discussion of the realist tradition deserves praise. Fairfield offers an intriguing analysis of the Chicago School and demonstrates a strong command of the historical literature on America’s cities. Moreover, his account is clearly written; one has no problem following his argument” —Reviews in American History

“An interesting and important work. . . . It is a worthwhile addition to the literature.  It will have meaning for academicians of planning history and theory, but equally so for thoughtful practitioners who feel the profession has lost its vision.” —American Planning Association Journal

The Mysteries of the Great City examines the physical, cultural, and political transformations of the American city between the Gilded Age and the New Deal. Focusing on New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati, John Fairfield demonstrates that these transformations before and after the advent of city planning were the result of political decisions influenced by corporate and private wealth.

The expansion and reorganization of the great city stood out as the most visible symbol of the transformation. The new metropolitan form, with its skyscraping business center, industrial satellites, crowded working-class neighborhoods, and exclusive suburbs, embodied an emerging corporate order. But the metropolis also disguised the new order and gave it an apparent physical implacability and inevitability that obscured the role of choice in its creation and therefore placed it beyond criticism. Fairfield unravels the mysteries of the new form to reveal the centrality of power and politics in urban design.

While acknowledging that a great many factors shaped urban development, Fairfield underscores the decisive role of human design. He argues that American cities, both before and after the advent of professional planning have always been in some measure “planned.” Discussing such figures as Frederick Law Olmsted, Henry George, Daniel Burnham, Frederic Howe, Edward Bassett, Robert E. Park, and Louis Wirth, Fairfield illuminates the political and intellectual conflicts among advocates of alternative paths of urban development.

The Mysteries of the Great City will enlighten all readers interested in the development of cities, particularly urban historians and planners. In pointing to the Guilded Age as a period of great possibilities of progressive reform, this study will also reward readers interested in the historical foundations of our modern society.

John D. Fairfield is associate professor of history at Xavier University and is the author of several articles on urban design and history.

1993   322 pp. illus.

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