Social Space in Fredericksburg
Georg Simmel believed that physical space was defined by the social relationships that take place in that area (Hurst 65). It is not the physical location that creates social fact, but a social fact that manifests itself in a physical way. According to Simmel space is defined socially using several features (Hurst 65):
- Space is always exclusive and unique.
- Space can be broken down into parts, becoming separate areas.
- The extent to which a group and its members are tied to a particular “home” or physical location
- Distance and proximity between objects, people and groups
By focusing on the characteristics three and four I hope to comment on the arrangement of social space in a small area of Fredericksburg in hopes of reflecting the citywide social implications of how our city has been developed.
If one were to give the city of Fredericksburg a cursory glance you might not even notice that there are areas with extremely high populations of low-income individuals. Odds are if you are a visitor to your city your route would include sights like this:
Fredericksburg looks like a beautiful place full of history and entertainment, a place anyone would be lucky to live. And it is. But this is not the totality of our city, but rather one area of the space we call home. You will find all of these great places (and many more) in the Historic Downtown area of Fredericksburg, but for my discussion I want to focus on an area of our city slightly outside of this range.
Near the train station and the old Walker Grant public school you begin to approach one of the lower-income sectors of town. On Caroline Street (which runs directly into Historic Downtown) you will find many beautiful houses that have been maintained to preserve their historical traits. The people who live on this street are typically members of the upper class of Fredericksburg, just two streets over on Dixon Street you will see a completely different sight. Here many of the houses are poorly maintained, they are surrounded by old brick townhouses in states of disrepair and the population of this area is largely low-income and minority. If you turn right off of Dixon you will find the city’s alternative school and also the home of the city’s Head Start program (a preschool program for low-income families).
If you continue straight on Dixon street it will seem that you are leaving the city of Fredericksburg. About a mile or mile and a half up the road you will approach another neighborhood called Mayfield. While still within walking distance of the city, Mayfield is situated farther from the downtown area than most residential neighborhoods. This neighborhood is largely made up of African American residents who are low or middle income and working class. Due to their location on the outskirts of the city very few city residents who do not live there are forced to pass through these areas.
Having gone to area schools and having lived in the Fredericksburg area for most of my entire life I am very familiar with the conceptions that residents have of this neighborhood. It is largely classified as a place that only black people live and a place that is often associated with crime and danger. Through personal experiences with residents of Mayfield, quite a bit of this is exaggerated on behalf of those who are unfamiliar with the neighborhood.
One of the defining characteristics of Mayfield is the sense of community that has developed there. Many of the residents of the neighborhood feel a strong connection to both the neighborhood and the relationships that they have built with their neighbors. It is not uncommon for multiple generations to live in this same neighborhood.
I also found it interesting to try and relate this to Simmel’s fourth characteristic of social space by evaluating the distance of Mayfield from the downtown area. It’s distance from the downtown region certainly makes it seem as though it is an isolated area, further contributing to the sense of otherness it evokes in residents. This distance not only creates distance between a significant portion of the African American population and the wealthier white population in the downtown area, it also distances them from the resources of the downtown area. Both of these factors contribute to alienation or lack of relationship between groups in Fredericksburg.
I found it interesting when reading Hurst’s chapter on “Separatism and Status” that he commented on findings that reflect that in urban areas two-thirds of blacks live in all-black neighborhoods and that this segregation often limits opportunities for daily interaction which creates racial “isolation” (76). As I reflected on how social space is arranged here in Fredericksburg I found that this sad fact is also true of our beautiful city, but perhaps if residents developed a better understanding of the role that place plays in determining social relations we could begin to address this problem.