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Visual symbols of community culture in Thornton Park, Orlando, FL

Visual symbols of community culture in Thornton Park, Orlando, FL

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Published by Brian A. Salmons
Assignment for course "Principles and Strategies of Community Change", GPIDEA Community Development Master's Degree Program, Fall 2006.
Assignment for course "Principles and Strategies of Community Change", GPIDEA Community Development Master's Degree Program, Fall 2006.

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Published by: Brian A. Salmons on Mar 16, 2009
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Module III Assignment: "Visual symbols of community culture


"Thornton Park Neighborhood": So reads a large sign at the neighborhood's main northern entrance, at a busy intersection. The sign indicates a sense of distinct place and encourages this in the minds of residents and non-resident passers-by.

Flags: A few houses have American flags hanging from the flag poles mounted on the front porch. There are also some American flags hanging from public lamp posts. These indicate patriotism among some members of the community. The fact that not all houses have flags indicate a valuation of the societal ideal of "freedom of expression" and voluntary participation in patriotic displays. In one part of the neighborhood, two houses that are side by side illustrate the diversity, and the acceptance of diversity, that exists in this neighborhood: one hangs an American flag, the other an American flag and a rainbow flag (commonly understood to represent "gay pride"). The two flags are conscious symbols of community pride and taken together could be interpreted as an expression of cooperation in diversity. The house with hanging both flags can also represent the identification subcultures have with the dominant culture, an effort at softening the contrast with the dominant culture, or it could also represent that person's identification with two cultures on equal terms (American patriotism and Gay Pride). However, they may also represent conflict within the community, the flags of one house being raised in defiance of the other's. The flags may be a local expression of the larger conflict within American society between political conservativism and the Gay Pride movement.

Fences: Many yards have small, white picket fences around them. These conjure up images associated with the "American Dream", such as house with a white picket fence, and indicate that community residents "buy into" this aspect of American mythology. The fences also lend to a presentation of the neighborhood as a living manifestation of the American Dream, where the myth is a lived reality. The symbolic purpose of fences is more important than any utilitarian purpose (e.g. keeping people off one's property), a point illustrated by one resident's yard that contains only a small, reduced-size fence "corner". This representation of a fence is clearly decorative and serves no purpose except to lend an aesthetic which is borrowed from the symbolism of the "white picket fence".

Monuments: Located just outside of Thornton Park is a park, Constitution Green, formerly called "Big Tree Park", named after the centuries-old live oak tree that stands at its center. Recently plans have been proposed to develop half of this park into a high-rise condominium building; these plans have provisions for a public easement to provide access to and preservation of the old tree. In a neighborhood further to the south of Thornton Park is a memorial plaque that reads: "Nearby in the forest primeval, amid unfolding history, once stood in majestic beauty the Council Oak, traditional meeting place of the Indian chiefs in the Seminole Indian War" (Dickinson, 2003, p.16). As the plaque indicates, the Council Oak no longer exists (it was struck by lightning in he 1880’s [Ibid., p. 36]). What these monuments to trees (the park and the plaque) indicate is a desire to feel rooted in the past. Communities are formed around cultural ideals (much as societies are, e.g. post-WWII American society centered on the American Dream). These ideals are articulated in myths about how the community was formed. The myth of the Council Oak (there is actually scanty evidence to support the tree's existence, so it also a myth in the popular, negative meaning of the word) demonstrates the community's desire to feel grounded in local history, to feel a spiritual connection to the events that transpired in years past on the land that is now their backyards, streets and parks. These monuments also represent patriotism. The park that contains the old live oak is named "Constitution Green", a clear patriotic reference. And the Council Oak, as a symbol of the Seminole Indians, has been tamed into a comprehensible placespecific symbol of Seminole culture, a harmless long-gone tree honored by school children. It is a memorial to a culture that was ultimately defeated by the United States military in the name of freedom and for the betterment of all Americans (or so the story goes).

Street-oriented architecture and small-scale design: This is largely a legacy of antecedent communities, the ones in existence when the physical neighborhood was built. Houses are small in scale, characterized positively as “quaint” by modern standards. Yards are also small, with more space dedicated to shrubbery and gardens than a typical suburban yard, which is mostly lawn. Most houses have driveways or garages, however more cars are parked in the street than in these. Street parking lends a feeling of proximity to neighbors, and is said to make streets safer than those with no street parking. Likewise, brick-lined streets give the neighborhood an “oldtime” feel and are thought to slow traffic, also making the streets safer. These theories were undoubtedly on the minds of a few residents, as they were on mine, when considering relocating to this area. Smaller lot sizes on smaller blocks (compared to suburban neighborhoods) mean more streets cross-cutting the neighborhood. This in turn means less congestion, as drivers have more choices of what routes to take through the neighborhood. Overall, the preservation of these historic features of Thornton Park show that current residents value them, whether for their historical genuineness, nostalgia (similarity to communities as they were in the “old days”) or because provide for an opportunity to live a consciously sustainable life, interacting with the community “from the sidewalk”, so to speak. Essentially, house architecture and neighborhood design provide residents with a feeling of living in a close-knit, old-fashioned community. Where it differs from this ideal (mainly in new construction, e.g. Thornton Park Central, a mixed-use development in the "heart" of the revitalized neighborhood), it reflects an urban style: buildings close to the street, store-fronts and activity on the sidewalk.

Cars: In spite of the overall impression of Thornton Park as a close-knit community, in tune with nature and history, yet smartly urban and chic, American obsessions with cars and wealth are alive and well here. There is hardly a jalopy to be seen. Short driveways in front of small houses are packed with luxury cars, BMW’s, Mercedes and so-called “entry luxury cars” like Lexus. It could be argued that purchasing luxury cars is a form of “conspicuous consumption” (spending wealth publicly to demonstrate one’s worth), but their unavoidable presence in this neighborhood signals to all residents and passer-by that this is an affluent area, whether that signal is sent consciously or not.

Analysis: - Ethnic heritage: no particular ethnic heritage is portrayed, other than the Seminole cultural legacy that was appropriated by the dominant culture as its own. Also, if you consider "American" to be an ethnic group then this heritage is displayed proudly. Although the neighborhood it noted for its "walk-ability", relatively few people are to be seen on the streets. One exception is an area with a high concentration of restaurants and shops. On any given day that I have passed by this area, most of the people to be seen were "white" in appearance. Census statistics bear this fact out. It is also a safe assumption that minorities are not frequent visitors to this area, which explains why they are not represented in the visual symbols of community I have noted I this study, - Cultural achievement: financial success/affluence (expensive cars), taming of the wilderness (the defeated Seminole, controlled presentation of natural features of landscape) - Technical achievement: n/a - Civic organization: n/a - Religious tradition: n/a - Are symbols an accurate reflection of what the community is today?: The symbols of a close-knit, old-fashioned community are misleading (see personal insights below for explanation). - Good reflection of community's history?: The architecture and neighborhood design have been kept pretty much as they were when the neighborhood was first developed (as far as I can tell without doing more in-depth research). In this sense, it very accurately reflects the community's history, though not so much symbolically as materially. Other visual symbols in the community (e.g. fences, flags, monuments) reflect the community's links to larger themes of community and society found in the larger field of American history (e.g. the American Dream, fighting for freedom). - Personal insights into community as a result of this study: Before moving to Thornton Park, I had my doubts about claims that it represents certain ideals of urban living and community. Upon examining various visual symbols presented consciously and unconsciously by the community's residents, I have confirmed my suspicions that Thornton Park is not the idyllic urban utopia, local poster-child for the New Urbanism movement, that it is cracked up to be. While the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood is arranged in a way that would theoretically encourage neighborly interaction to a degree greater than that found in suburban neighborhoods, other factors must prevent this from becoming a reality. For example, while most houses have front porches, I have only occasionally seen residents sitting out on them. Perhaps the Florida weather has something to do with this, since most of the houses presumably also have air conditioning making it much more comfortable inside than outside on the porch. This study was conducted in the last months of summer, so it will be interesting to see if neighborhood activity increases in Florida's short fall, winter and spring months.

Bibliography: Dickinson, J. W. (2003) Orlando: City of Dreams. Arcadia Publishing: Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo credits: all photos were taken by Brian Salmons on 14 September 2006, except the photo of the old live oak in Constitution Plaza (retrieved from City of Orlando website) and the photo of the Council Oak plaque (by Tom Cook, 2002, www.cfhf.net)

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