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
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
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
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
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.