An Auburn Walking Tour: Geographical Examination of a Southern College Town

by Dr. Miriam Helen Hill

The Physical Setting

Auburn, Alabama is the home of Auburn University, founded in 1856. A land grant institution, the university dominates the town through its spatial proximity, occupying one quarter of the main intersection, Toomer's Corner, and it's economic impact on the community. The university is the Heart of Auburn (sorry, that hotel was not on the walking tour) and the life blood is its flow of students and employees who commute to town or live nearby, eat, and shop in its CBD. Students come to Auburn from across the country and around the world. Auburn is a traditional southern town cut out of the dense pine forests built among the straight trunks, and presently adorned with the flowering vegetation that makes it feel like the south. Holly and mistletoe abound, the controlled and the uncontrolled, and the kudzu overwhelms when given half of an opportunity. The humid subtropical climate provides a warm and fertile environment for the cultivation of more than just plants. It can be a pleasant place where life can fit together in harmony for its residents.

Although physical forces act upon the landscape and require adaptation and adjustment, the lay of the land is pragmatically built upon and fashioned unobtrusively into a domain grounded on the red soils of the Piedmont Plateau and the sands of the Coastal Plain. These inescapable forces are acknowledged with alacrity and humor.

The Urban Setting

Downtown Auburn is a mix of the old and the new, the chain and the independent, the opening and closing. The university presence clearly dictates the mix of businesses, and the storefronts represent a diverse and broken hodgepodge of styles, heights, and materials. Still, the structures are dependent upon the influx of customers, the university residents and the commuters, be it by bike or car. As Bunge expounds, all modes of transportation, however, must yield to the locomotive as its track bisects the north-south trending pathways. The state highway avoids the main blocks of the CBD, but at the intersection, the forces of development compel the traditional to relinquish control to the blight of the motor traffic. While on the main drag, the body and mind may be fed, here it is the vehicle and the wallet. As Burgess depicts, with distance from the urban center commercial land use intensity diminishes and sequent occupance may be observed. Particularly intriguing is the occupation of some restaurant chain edifice by an independent doughnut establishment. A quick examination raises questions as to the utilization of floor space, both inside and out. Other such curious invasions are evident in this surrounding district, in particular, a clinic in what was obviously a former domicile or a law firm operating within a family mansion.

City Hall is not central, but occupies a modern expansive facility within this distended commercial district. In opposition to customary patterns, two of the three adjacent corners are empty lots, and although these are note especially rare in the area, as might be predicted, their actual locations defy obvious explanations and logic. They do not appear to function for recreational purposes, although this requirement is sufficiently integrated into the community plan. The main street has its urban mini-park at which the weary shopper can pause and be seated to enjoy the beatification efforts of the city workers. Public accessibility has, likewise, been integrated and incorporated for a functional design. The weary pedestrian or waiting student can be accommodated outside of a nearby church. Where the main channel of the watershed passes through town, a formal park has been established. In the past, another property, called Firewood Park, may have served recreational purposes, but as a local oddity, it is not an overgrown equipment junk yard.

The Historical Setting

Looking back at the town and the university, the area has a rich history. Visible on the landscape, historical plaques tell the story behind their significance. Such sites include the Scott-Yarborough House and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and early church for the local blacks, as well as the Auburn University Chapel. The religious tradition of the area is evident on Auburn's landscape.

The Residential Setting

The blocks of the walking tour represent a microcosm of the community, but the extent is sufficient to see trends away from the tracks and away from the CBD. Toward the north, properties are smaller and generally more poorly maintained. To the east are located more prominent and larger homes. To the south is a mixture of larger and well maintainedresidences. Generally continuing this pattern and interspersed among them all are found the apartments. The 20,000 plus students need accommodations and when land becomes available, the economics of meeting these demands often prevail. To the south, as with the homes the habitations are more individualistic and private but closer to the university compactness and height intensify. Word plays attempt to establish what the ambiance can not. Shall we live in Camelot or is it too stark? Or, perhaps, Shady Glenn, but where is the shade? Or, maybe, Deerwood, but the wooded complex is next door.

If apartment complexes are too impersonal, the next best option is the duplex. The spatial pattern of upkeep depicted remains consistent from the first duplex on the route and the way homes have been subdivided around to others planned or adapted.

The Social Setting

Living is not just work or school; it includes social interaction. In the south, activity is often focused out of doors. Living space becomes action space and extends beyond the exit of the abode. The porch is a haven expressive of the individual. It is a little part of Eden, a heaven of an escape. The porch or its extension is a shelter and retreat, a place where things wait. And if the building has not porch, then a room on the lawn can suffice.

The out of doors is play ground for action and inaction. Bridging the space between buildings may be a metal jungle of protective coverings and pathways. A child's jungle may underlie and be shared by other bushy tailed residents. But, the pleasure from disneyfication prevails be it in plastic sand castles or play houses and other permanent child-oriented yard games. Non-functional make-believe can also be seen.

The Visual Setting

Looking behind it all more is yet to be found, in spite of efforts to keep it hidden. Certainly, Auburn shares in universal uniformities. Semiotics extract interest and humor from the landscape be it in vehicular commercialization or the over abundance of signage. How can we best express ourselves? What have we to say or sell? Put it on the back of our vehicle. Declare our southern spirit at our door, or reveal our foreign allegiance. Should we not wish to declare a national identity, we may just wish to send a cheery message. Is it, however, a message of welcome, with no parking and a neighborhood watch? We have an open door, but dual warning cones. In front we solicit typing, but behind we warn you off. Below is no trespassing and no parking, but above hangs rental information. Parking instructions prevail; likewise, proceed slowly between buildings. In that distance, how could one go fast? Southern dialect and pride is further displayed.

The signs need not be verbal. Auburn is clearly a student community with the transient and unsettled population. Evidence of the lives of college students abound if one observes closely.

A vision of Auburn University dominates the community. It is written on the landscape and travels with the occupants.

The Overall Setting

Auburn University represents towering achievements for the student body, and memories of Auburn will remain high points in many people's experiences. The city and the university have touched our live's, and a walk around Auburn speaks differently to each participant each time it is undertaken. Such an experience is full of many special and hidden meanings. As we move away from these scenes, we can become more aware of the love for the community which abounds in this place. it is not just that we are under the mistletoe. This is a special and unique place. We know we have been blessed to have had it touch our lives, and we wish to spread this good fortune by sharing this with others.