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The Role of Public Spaces in Managing Racial Experiences

The societal perception of race is built and manifested directly in the environment that a particular ethnic group occupies. The vision of race as a social construct in the sense of a group’s understanding of themselves and others is influenced by social context, which includes public spaces. Political, social, and geographical imbalance often is expressed in how certain territories divided, named, and visually presented. In this way, the importance of inclusion and representation of ethnic minorities by creating and modifying already existing places in order to reflect their identities is indispensable for contemporary globalized urban areas.

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Analysis of the correlation between urban planning and the distribution of ethnicities in a city allows researchers to judge the level of integration that the city implements. A practical method to diversify and thus racialize an urban space is to encourage multiculturalism instead of assimilation for minorities and immigrants, for instance, in visual representations of local culture and the choice of names of the places (Basu and Fiedler, p. 4). Nevertheless, the struggle for visual representation in public spaces goes alongside the general battle for cultural dominance over a territory.

Racialization helps various communities and ethnic minorities to establish the significance of their identity and fight stigmatization. Community murals in Boston created by the youth of color mainly serve this purpose (Sieber et al, p. 267). Generally, one of the covert objectives of street art and collective forms of art is creating a stable community and exhibiting one’s identity, making it finally visible. Another example of a city where racialization of the public sphere is encouraged is Scarborough, Canada. The city became home for a large number of immigrants, who in 2006 constituted more than half of its population (Basu and Fiedler, p. 2). Thus, building community centers, localizing already existing community places such as shops, and visually representing one’s culture on the city’s surfaces are common strategies for racialization that are implemented on a different scale.

Visual representation is one of the critical factors for managing public perception of a specific individual or a group of individuals. Nevertheless, it is not a one-way-process as the public sphere is both shapes and is shaped by societal and political contexts. Squares, avenues, parks, and building walls have the capacity to carry messages and be cultural signifiers, especially in questions concerning race. Such processes as marginalization and assimilation that embody personal experiences of race frequently are reflected in urban planning, race make-up of a neighborhood, and visual representation of public spaces. For instance, the experience of racial inclusion or exclusion may be primarily encountered in public areas. Kelly Ingram Park, in Birmingham that used to be a place of segregation and stigma, excluding the presence of African American citizens, nowadays serves as a reminder and vessel for distinct racial experiences (Dwyer, p. 662). Public spaces give or deprive of the opportunity of interaction and shared experiences between the members of various racial groups – they may serve both as separating barriers or melting pots.

Except for overtly visual power-struggle that has as its battlefield public spaces directly, naming is another more indirect strategy to assign a particular racial identity to a place. Moreover, naming is a tool not only to change the present but also the past. African American population in the south of the United States had as its political mission to commemorate Martin Luther King, particularly by naming streets after the activist (Alderman, p. 681). Street naming after King was also a way to establish a strong presence of African Americans in the region. Alderman notes that “MLK street naming appears to be most overrepresented in places where the African-American population is at least 30% of the total population” (p. 678). The rule of majority or at least the power of a strong presence is how society negotiates different demands, especially those that concern public spaces despite the political hierarchy. In this way, street naming functions as a quintessence of collective memory, helping the African American population of the south to both construct their past and commemorate a crucial figure of North American history through geographical surroundings.

Managing public spaces may be an inexhaustive source for political conflicts based on racial prejudices. In 1995, a statue of Arthur Ashe in Monument Avenue became the focus of public debates as citizens of Richmond could not find common ground on the questions concerning the statues’ placing (Leib, p. 287). The discussion quickly shifted from the statue placement to the racial demographics and identity politics in Richmond, which illustrates Leib ‘s argument that “the cultural landscape can be a reflection and component of a racial project” (p. 306). Thus, public places as a point of common interest have immense value in determining what is politically appropriate, especially in regards to memorialization.

In contemporary circumstances, urban areas become a place of racial diversity and incorporation of this diversity in public places. Nevertheless, the struggle for representation and even presence in the generalized public sphere was a long and thorny road for some ethnic groups. Racial segregation, as one of the characteristics of the history of the United States, created artifacts that nowadays serve as a reminder for researchers of the profound connection between social perception and public places.

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  1. Alderman, Derek H. “A Street Fit for a King: Naming Places and Commemoration in the American South.” The Professional Geographer, vol. 52, no. 4, 2000, pp. 672–684.
  2. Basu, Ranu, and Robert S. Fiedler. “Integrative Multiplicity Through Suburban Realities: Exploring Diversity Through Public Spaces in Scarborough.” Urban Geography, vol. 38, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1–22.
  3. Dwyer, Owen J. “Interpreting the Civil Rights Movement: Place, Memory, and Conflict”. The Professional Geographer, vol. 52, no. 4, 2000, pp. 660–671.
  4. Leib, Jonathan I. “Separate Times, Shared Spaces: Arthur Ashe, Monument Avenue and the Politics of Richmond, Virginia’s Symbolic Landscape.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 9, no. 3, 2002, pp. 286–312.
  5. Sieber, Tim, et al. “The Neighborhood Strikes Back: Community Murals by Youth in Boston’s Communities of Color.” City & Society, vol. 24, no. 3, 2012, pp. 263–280.

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