UMW Honors Students share impressions through annual city as text showcase
Fredericksburg neighborhoods can be welcoming and whimsical, contrasting history with a modern vibe, accessibility with obstacles, and well-tended spaces with wildscapes.
Those are some of the perceptions UMW’s Honors Program students shared this week as a culminating activity in their City as Text (CaT) activities. Since late summer, they’ve explored sections of the city under the trademarked CaT program, an experiential learning curriculum that challenges incoming honors students to observe, research and reflect on their urban surroundings.
Nineteen student groups set up City as Text Showcase displays in the Chandler Ballroom of the Cedric Rucker University Center on Monday evening, Oct. 9, 2023. Each group presented findings to an audience of fellow collegians, UMW faculty and staff, President Troy D. Paino, and city representatives including Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw.
Their presentations were based largely on expeditions to various sections of the city during the steamy heat of late summer. The students presented their findings as first impressions enhanced by later research, but not as definitive judgments. In fact, many presenters pointed out that their interpretations and opinions may change over time as they come to know the city better.
Nevertheless, the CaT Showcase offered insights into a Fredericksburg viewed through fresh eyes:
The entire length of Washington Avenue “represents what Fredericksburg aspires to be,” one group said. It blends history and a sense of community, different types of housing, monuments, and friendly touches such as a Little Free Library.
Lafayette Boulevard from the train station toward the National Cemetery offers an interesting mix of older and new housing, locally owned businesses including a distinctive mid-20th-century building that’s now a burger restaurant, and a preponderance of auto shops that speak to the boulevard’s highway history.
Several groups noted the prevalence of yard signs supporting political candidates or taking positions on local issues, creating the impression of an involved, politically active community.
The Fredericksburg Farmers Market at Hurkamp Park defied students’ expectations “of overpriced produce and kitschy crafts,” instead offering a variety of reasonably priced local products and actively serving customers who use governmental food assistance. It was also a marketplace for “things that were not food,” noted student Brooke Martin, who was impressed by the civic and political groups sharing information there.
And students loved downtown Fredericksburg’s statues of river otters, appreciating them as artworks and as a tribute to the Rappahannock River. CaT participant Lynell Boyd was inspired to 3D print her own miniature river otter with help from UMW’s Digital Knowledge Center, and her group used it in their presentation.
The students also picked up on some less-appealing aspects of Fredericksburg life.
A driver shouted at a one group legally using a Cowan Boulevard crosswalk. Another group titled their presentation “Hostile Architecture and the Canal Path,” observing physical elements that seemed designed to limit skateboarding, soliciting and sleeping. And several groups detected obstacles to accessibility that make sidewalks or buildings difficult to navigate.
On balance, though, the students not only learned from City as Text but had a great time doing it. Case in point: the group assigned to upper Princess Anne Street, with its invigorating buzz of activity.
Those students – Morgan Stubbs, Melinda Snow, Ava Ward and Lee Adams – used all their senses during their Princess Anne Street adventure. They felt air “so humid you could drink it with a straw,” Snow said. They smelled the algae in the City Canal, heard happy sounds of children playing with water toys, and tasted the cones and shakes at Carl’s.
And what they saw, they loved – the businesses housed in mid-century buildings, the signs of individuality in residential gardens, and the biodiversity of the area near the canal. The presence of many wagging, welcoming dogs inspired them to present their findings with a dog-themed poster that they titled “Local Gems.”
Mayor Greenlaw recognized local gems of a different sort among the students and their observations. She’s attended every City as Text presentation since the program began in August 2019, and she enjoys the students’ revelations about how their expectations of Fredericksburg transform once they have real-life experiences.
And City as Text is an excellent introduction to their new home. “I love this program,” Greenlaw said, “I really do.”