When Bad Things Happen to Good Towns

Melody WarnickGreat towns, Place love, Virginia0 Comments

If you live in Blacksburg, Virginia, you’re apparently obligated to hate Charlottesville, at least a little. Every team has its cross-town rival, and the University of Virginia is Virginia Tech’s, thus—and correct me if I’m wrong, because I know zero about sports—we are natural enemies. Giving a talk in Charlottesville a few months ago for the Virginia Festival of the Book, I nervously cracked a joke about being from Blacksburg, and someone said, “We’ll forgive you.”

In truth, we’re a bit jealous of Charlottesville. When I was writing This Is Where You Belong, one of the Blacksburgians I interviewed, a budding placemaker and developer, described his vision for our town, the centerpiece of which would be a vibrant, restaurant- and retail-thronged pedestrian mall just like Charlottesville’s. Then a few weeks ago I gave a speech in Lynchburg, Virginia, to help kick off the city’s downtown master plan renewal. Afterward, one of the town employees gave voice to the secret longings of the southwest Virginian heart when he said, “Everyone wishes they were Charlottesville.”

Would we want to be Charlottesville now? What happens when a great city comes to be irrevocably associated with something terrible? When its name alone becomes synonymous with racism and violence?

A few weeks ago my friend mentioned she’d picked a paint color for her house: “Sandy Hook Gray.” The shock I felt illustrates the problem here. There was a time when the name Sandy Hook evoked nothing more sinister for Benjamin Moore customers than the earthy shade of a colonial Connecticut stone house, but it must be an unscathed few who don’t hear the name now and think, at least briefly, of first graders being shot in their schoolrooms. That’s not something you want to associate with a paint color, let alone an entire town.

Will Charlottesville take on similar tones? Unfortunately, it probably will, the way to some outsiders Blacksburg will only ever call to mind the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. The hope I can offer is that’s not how locals see our town. People who lived here when that tragedy occurred (I didn’t) still deal with some very real grief; a small part of that may be grief that the place they love bears a shadow in the public mind. The shooting forever changed how outsiders see us. And yet it’s not how Blacksburg defines itself. As with Charlottesville, what happened here in Blacksburg seems, to locals, an anomaly. It’s not representative of who we are, what our place is like, or whether or not we love it.

My friend Jessie, who moved to Charlottesville several years ago and just bought a house there, posted a picture on Facebook of her family out to lunch at a restaurant in town. They were showing their city some much-needed love, she said. That’s what makes suffering cities resilient. Their people continue to love them. In these worst-case scenarios, place attachment proves powerfully healing.

Even a longtime foe like Blacksburg understands that.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: I was the first guest on the CityWorks Xpo podcast a while back, which makes me especially thrilled that it’s since turned into this powerhouse gathering place for placemaking big thinkers. Have a listen here.

7 items of interest

1. “You talk to any 16- or 17-year-old … and they all say the same thing: I want to get out of here. But then they reach a certain age, and they want to give their kids the kinds of experiences they had.” Why people return to dying towns.
2. How would doing this project in your town change it for the better?
3. A coal town recovers from losing coal.
4. The magic of street play.
5. Half of us want to move elsewhere. The half that hasn’t read my book. Ha.
6. Nature words are disappearing from books, music, and movies—not a good sign for place attachment.
7. Bjork wants you to walk (via Project for Public Spaces).

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Issue 15: Buy the lemonade.

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Buy local, Place love, Virginia0 Comments

My kids have spent approximately 1 million hours staring at screens this summer, and this morning my horror at my own lazy parenting came to a head. “NO SCREENS!” I intoned. I helped my distraught 10-year-old recover from the shock by brainstorming what she could do instead. Number 1 on her list was “Have a lemonade stand,” an activity I normally discourage because it requires arduous tasks like hauling the folding table from the basement. But desperate times and all. With her friend Grace, Ruby made cookie dough brownies and two containers of Crystal Light, posted hand-drawn signs at the top of the street, then expectantly set up shop (and the folding table) at the end of the driveway.

Let me tell you one of the things I like best in the world: people who stop for lemonade stands.

Every potential customer is driving a car, speeding elsewhere. And still, shockingly, a dozen people stopped, including our neighbors from both sides and one old guy with a scruffy beard who braked hard, shifted into reverse, and drove 75 yards backwards to buy a plastic cup of lemonade from two kids. Even the UPS guy partook. Almost everyone said, “Keep the change.” In about an hour the girls made $25, half of which they’re going to donate to the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad.

What’s that impulse that compels people to stop for lukewarm raspberry lemonade and brownies that have been manhandled by 10-year-olds without food handling permit? It is an act of almost pure selflessness. And it represents one of the best ways to love your community. You stop just to make two 10-year-olds giddy happy. You stop because nurturing neighborhood relationships matters more than rushing elsewhere.

I’m trying to be the kind of person who stops at lemonade stands, literally and figuratively. Seeing other people who do the same made me love where I live today.


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: The San Francisco Chronicle recently published a selection of first lines of books, and mine was among them. So that’s cool. Also cool: giving a TEDx talk in Fargo, North Dakota, last week. I’ll post the video when it’s out.

7 items of interest

1. I didn’t know emojitecture was a word, but I love it.
2. “Intimate connections rarely expose us to new ideas because we already know what, for example, our spouses, mothers and sisters think.” An argument for getting to know your neighbors, from my friend Marc Dunkelman, that goes perfectly with this CityLab piece about the power of weak ties as seen at the neighborhood Y.
3. Turning immigrants into American citizens is a boon for cities.
4. What activity would make a neighborhood bench a place to hang out? And are you willing to organize it?
5. As you know if you’ve read my book, I’m lukewarm about “best cities” lists, but I like this one because I’ve visited 14 of the 15 named cities! (Sorry, Nashville. Soon, I promise.)
6. I say “soda,” and I’m starting to say “y’all.” I’M A MONSTER.
7. This beautiful video about an Iowa town struggling to re-create itself exemplifies place attachment and kinda made me cry.

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Issue 14: Summer Beach Reads

Melody WarnickPlace love, Placemaking, Stuff I love0 Comments

Reading is delightful year round, but the phrase “summer beach read” always fills me with a giddy anticipatory pleasure. I’m not sure why. During a two-week New England vacation that landed me on more beaches than I’ve seen in five years, I read approximately 1/3 of one book and 1/2 of another. That’s it. And yet I cling to the idea that summer will bring me long, uninterrupted stretches for reading, and that I’m entitled during summer to read things that are as indulgent and lazy as the season. The rest of the year I’m pounding down Faulkner and Joyce.
Naturally. Only in July and August do I permit myself a smidgen of trash, like novels from Australian chick-lit queen Liane Moriarty or last summer’s blockbuster Before the Fall.

That’s not entirely true. Ahem. But every time I hear the phrase “summer beach read,” I’m reminded of how pleasurable reading is, a fact we sometimes forget. So consider adding one of these books to your summer beach bag. They’re delightful, encouraging, and illuminating. Like summer.

The Turquoise Table, by Kristin Schell.
Kristin’s an Austinite who made two life-changing decisions. First, she put a picnic table in her front yard instead of her backyard. Second, she painted it turquoise. Boom. That table became a magnet for the social life of her entire neighborhood, the place where neighbors met neighbors and strangers became friends. The book is filled with simple This Is Where You Belong–style ideas about how to build community where you live. And there’s photos and recipes and activities too. And it’s beautifully designed. So really, there’s no reason not to get it.

Seeing the Better City, by Charles R. Wolfe.
I met Chuck at a placemaking conference in Vancouver last year, and he’s the real deal, a down-to-earth expert on what makes cities liveable. That’s something a lot of us feel instinctively, but Chuck gives you the tools to really figure out why by observing your city. For instance, try this simple exercise: Walk your favorite street in your town and take photos of what you see. How do the buildings add to the sense of the space? The trees? The sidewalks? The people? If you know of a place in town you want to improve, Chuck teaches you how to translate your observations into action.

The Weekend Effect, by Katrina Onstad.
What is summer but an extended weekend? (Or at least that’s what we wish it were.) Katrina Onstad lays out a personal, practical case for treating leisure time as vital to our well-being and for putting the brakes on Saturday sports marathons, cleaning binges, and Internet zombie-fication so you can get the most bang for your weekend buck. “I try to stay committed,” she writes, “to Aristotle’s ideal, the simple notion that the ‘good life’ includes leisure, and leisure is freedom. The work—while important, and often even gratifying—is not who we are.” Especially not in summer. (Full circle. See how I did that?)


Shameless self-promotion portion of the newsletter: The beautiful paperback version of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live comes out on July 4!


7 items of interest

1. Nothing is better than a TARDIS little free library.
2. Austin Kleon’s advice for recent grads includes “find a new city.”
3. Utahns marry Idahoans and more shockers about love and geography.
4. This should actually be filed under shameless self-promotion because I’m quoted, but whatever, it’s full of wisdom nuggets for making friends after a move.
5. 43 questions to ask before picking a new town.
6. More Chuck Wolfe action in this piece about creating your own urban diary.
7. Toilet plunger bike lane hack. Use what you got.

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Issue 12: You Need a Friend

Melody WarnickUncategorized0 Comments

A few weeks ago, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I did a placemaking activity where I had passersby fill out cards that said, “I live in ______________ and this is why I love it.” People dashed off answers like:

  • “Diversity & inclusiveness! We welcome everyone!”—Decatur, Georgia
    “Because the people are welcoming and the food is delicious.”—Houston, Texas
    “It is full of interesting people who’ve built a close-knit, lively, supportive community that feels small-town.”—Montclair, Virginia
    “Because it’s home.”—Crozet, Virginia
  • Then there were the outliers. A few people stood there for a while, stumped. A military spouse told me that, actually, she hated her city, thank you very much. One woman carefully crossed out “love” and penciled in “like,” comfortable with admitting only the vaguest of warm feelings about her place. Some visitors, like water balloons, needed just one little prick of curiosity for them to leak their struggles all over the place, most of which boiled down to this:

    “I don’t have any friends here.”

    Oh. I get that. How I get that.

    One of the women I interviewed for This Is Where You Belong, an eminent placemaker in her own right, described moving to a new state like this: “There was a real sense of grief, because I realized, oh my gosh, no one within a ninety-mile radius would care if I died.” That feeling of loneliness is at the heart of all the crazy chaos around moving to a new place, all the disconnection we sometimes feel from the place we’re in: We’re lonely.

    In the May 2017 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, Mary Pauline Lowry describes making kombucha with a neighbor’s “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” a SCOBY. Imagine a sourdough starter, like a ball of goo that gets passed and divided and passed along again. (Holy cow, you can buy a SCOBY on Amazon. Why do people drink kombucha again?) When Lowry moved to Boise from Southern California, she posted on a local message board asking for Idaho SCOBY, and the woman who gave it to her become a running buddy. She shared the finished kombucha with a neighbor, who later invited her to brunch. Instant friends.

    Kombucha as ice breaker may be weird, but probably the weirdest ways of meeting new friends work best. People are everywhere. What you need in a new place is a tribe. People who speak your innermost language, by loving Star Wars with your same intensity or homeschooling their kids with your same little-known philosophy … or loving kombucha. Your people. To find them, you have to be keenly aware of what’s meaningful to you, what thrills you, and who you are at your core. Your tribe is probably hanging out in the places you already love to go (farmers market, movie theater, river), doing the stuff you love to do.

    Do you have a tribe where you live? How have you found it? I’m asking for real. A friend and fellow journalist is looking for sources who moved to a new city for a job and can talk about the weird way they made friends there. If you can help, email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required and I’ll put you in touch and be your kombucha friend forever.

    7 items of interest

    1. What if all the construction fences in your city were an art gallery?
    2. Why we’re mistakenly nostalgic for Main Street—and how maybe online work is the way back. Wut? Then there’s this argument for making delight, not cost, the center of all your decisions.
    3. For those of you still daydreaming about it, 11 bloggers talk about the challenges of moving to New York City.
    4. More divisive than red vs. blue in our nation right now is urban vs. rural.
    5. Even introverts can learn to love/like/deal with their neighbors.
    6. Your town definitely needs a remakery.
    7. If I saw these bikes in my town, I’d have a happiness freak-out.

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