THE RECENT good news that Fredericksburg was declared the fifth “Best Small Town” in the South by Southern Living Magazine readers earlier this month got somewhat lost amid the headlines about much weightier matters: the coronavirus pandemic, the presidential campaign, the nation’s bitter partisan division, the crash of the stock market, and a startling jump in unemployment.
But during times of great national stress, it’s even more important to savor the good things in life. And the fact that Fredericksburg beat out 15 other charming towns with wonderful amenities—including Eureka Springs, Ark. (No. 13), Aiken, S.C. (No. 10) and yes, Fredericksburg, Tex. (No. 6)—for the No. 5 spot should indeed be savored by the city’s residents.
“This Rappahannock River town cemented its place in history during the Civil War, but today, it draws visitors for its old-time charm and outdoor attractions,” the Southern Living article stated, succinctly summing up why our Fredericksburg deserves the accolade.
One of the criteria the magazine asked its readers to consider is a town’s “authentic sense of place.” Fredericksburg’s unique history has always been one of its major draws, allowing people from all over the nation (and the world) to delve into its rich past while enjoying its “quaint downtown streets” and natural beauty.
Many developers have tried to create an “authentic sense of place” synthetically, but they failed because it cannot be manufactured or imposed. It is an ephemeral but palpable feeling that develops organically in certain places over the years. And while people can neither see it nor touch it, they know instantly when they’ve found it. And over the years people have found it in Fredericksburg as well as in Virginia’s first capital, Williamsburg (No. 1).
Southern Living pointed out that its readers also looked for towns where local residents “get more excited about preservation and reinvention than demolition.” Fredericksburg’s historic architecture, including the magnificent Renwick Courthouse, is a key part of its attraction. The city has done a good job of preserving and protecting these irreplaceable structures for future generations. City officials should continue to view them as valuable assets instead of financial liabilities.
Of course, all of the Best Small Towns are vulnerable to economic and population pressures, as well as a strictly modern aesthetic that spurns relics of the past. Jurisdictions have to choose a path between stagnation on the one hand and too many changes that threaten to destroy their character and ambience on the other, damage that is rarely realized until it’s too late.
The Best Small Towns have found and embraced that balance, and Fredericksburg residents and their public officials can be forgiven for a little bragging.