Do houses matter more than towns?

Melody WarnickCool projects, Great towns, I would live there2 Comments

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A lot of people make the mistake of confusing houses with places. We think that once we find a really affordable house, or a beautiful one, or one that we can finally squeeze all our kids and dogs and stuff into, that nothing else really matters. It doesn’t matter where that house is. Only the house itself is important.

I’ve made that same mistake myself. I’ve written briefly here before about my real estate obsession. Even now, while I’m writing a book about how vital towns our to our health and happiness, there’s a niggly bit of me that insists that all that matters is finding a city where I can buy a nice house for less than $400,000.

But a fews weeks ago, I went to a town called Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where dozens of residents lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. We rented a vacation home from a woman named Beth whose own house had been washed away. The tidal surge broke open the entire front wall, and one of her favorite chairs was found floating somewhere down along the pier. You’d think someone like Beth would just pick up and move away. The house is gone. Why bother?

But that’s not what happened. Most people I talked to in Ocean Springs were hard pressed to think of many people who had moved away after Katrina. Most stayed and slowly rebuilt through the very definition of hell or high water.

Part of the post-storm solution for helping people stay in place and rebuild faster are Katrina Cottages — tiny houses that are quick and cheap to build, yet make people feel a lot more at home than trailers do. Someohow Ocean Springs became a landing zone for several cottages envisioned by different architects, and now 18 or so of them are currently installed in a little rental community called Cottages at Oak Park.

Cottages at Oak Park, Ocean Springs, MS

An offshoot of my general real estate obsession is my love for tiny houses, and people, these are the most adorable ones in the world, painted in cotton candy colors with white picket fences. The teeniest are 300 square feet, the biggest 1,800 (not that tiny). I’m in love.

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What do you think? Would you live in one of these? More important, where would you put it? Living in the right house can make us feel at home in a place, but I love how the Katrina cottages are built to keep people in their town even when bad stuff happens.

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Why I spent a ton of money on Small Business Saturday

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Buy local0 Comments

This year, my daughter’s thirteenth birthday happened to land on the day after Thanksgiving, and so, because she’s officially a teenager and required by law to obsess over clothes, we went Black Friday shopping. On Thanksgiving night. For four hours. The mall was exactly the bacchanal of consumerism that you’d expect, and yes, I did get a very cute jean jacket at the Gap, thank you very much.

A day later I returned to the pre-Christmas fray with another shopping mission: to spend a whole lot of cash in Blacksburg’s local businesses for Small Business Saturday. Like Black Friday, Small Business Saturday is a fabricated excuse for spending, started by American Express in 2010 because, in the words of CEO Ken Chenault, “small businesses are the engine of job creation in the U.S. economy.” As on Black Friday, one is expected to buy a lot of stuff.

But there is a significant qualitative difference. In the mall, I’m searching for good deals on stuff I want; you can practically see the dollar signs in my eyeballs. Shopping on Small Business Saturday, on the other hand, feels like a higher-level experience, half-consumerism, half-charity.

Quinn on Small Biz Saturday

By my count, Quinn and I went into seven different stores and bought stuff at every last one. Most of it wasn’t originally on our shopping list, and most cost a bit more than we would have spent on Amazon. But I don’t have one twinge of buyers remorse (unusual for me!), and here’s why:

  1. Because buying things at locally owned businesses keeps 38 percent more revenue in my own local community than buying the same things at national chains.
  2. Because I bought unique things I wouldn’t have encountered at national stores, like a Blacksburg Is for Lovers t-shirt from Uncommonly Gifted.
  3. Because I talked to cool people. At Matrix Gallery, I bought a woven wheat ornament that was made by someone who lives right here in Blacksburg. The woman who sold it to me told me a funny story about trying to make her own woven wheat ornaments while slightly intoxicated. I love me some Target, but you just don’t that kind of quality interaction at big-box stores—nor the satisfaction of knowing that your money is helping a community member’s business thrive.
  4. Because I got a free mini pumpkin cupcake at Mad Dog clothing boutique and free gift wrapping at Imaginations Toy Store.

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On my personal hierarchy of spending, bargains have traditionally been at the top. But I’m trying to prioritize locally made purchases, even when they’re slightly more expensive, because they make me happier. I know, consumerism is consumerism, and maybe I’m basking in an unwarranted halo effect. But Small Business Saturday at least gives me the illusion that I’m not just in it for the stuff.

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The Spookiest Thing I Love About Blacksburg

Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Place love, Virginia0 Comments

I am a complete and total wuss when it comes to scary stuff. When I was growing up in Southern California, my dad would take my sister and me every year to Knott’s Scary Farm, where mask-wearing maniacs revved their chainsaws on the Log Ride and 20-somethings in evil makeup chased us around the funnel cake stands. Eventually, after a particularly vibrant post–Scary Farm nightmare, I woke up and went, “Wait, I actually HATE that.”

So you will not find me standing in line at any haunted houses this holiday season (or watching The Sixth Sense for that matter … shudder). But spooky AND historical? That’s somehow okay. For two years I’ve been driving past West View Cemetery in Blacksburg, with graves dating back to before the Civil War, and one gloomy October afternoon last week, I took a solitary stroll through it.

Cemetery tree

The cemetery is still being used, but the oldest tombstones were clumped together beneath a golden maple tree.

Shattered tombstone

Time and weather had been unkind to some of the markers. They’d been shattered, or tipped over, or rendered tiny, weather-worn nubs.

Old gravestone

Others were speckled with an orange moss, but not enough to obliterate that Brooke Lawson, who weathered the Civil War in Blacksburg, died when she was just 28—10 years younger than I am. What was life like for her? She wasn’t from here originally. What did she think of the town where she ended up?

Blacksburg Confederate statue

And what of Blacksburg’s beloved Confederate dead? What was life like for them? The ground beneath the memorial statue has been worn bald by visitors, which I think that means they haven’t been entirely forgotten.

I suppose you could walk through West View and imagine Scary Farm–style zombies emerging from the ground. But the cemetery wasn’t spooky for me. Sad, a little, but also inspiring in a Carpe Diem sort of way. Their time is over and done with. Not mine, not yet. It makes me think of the Mary Oliver line:

“Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life?”

(According to Haunted Places, only two spots in Blacksburg rate as ghost-ridden: The Lyric movie theater and, oddly, the Holiday Inn. I will be staying far, far away this Halloween.)

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I Would Live There: Roanoke, Virginia, edition

Melody WarnickGreat towns, I would live there, Placemaking, Virginia2 Comments

When people from, say, New York City ask me where I live, and I tell them “Blacksburg, Virginia,” sometimes I’ll add, by way of clarification, “Our nearest big city is Roanoke.” Then they sigh with relief and say, “Oh, I know where that is.”

But they don’t. They hear “Roanoke” and their brains waddle to the mental card catalog and pull out “Roanoke, Lost Colony of.” This is not that Roanoke.

This Roanoke is a city of about 97,000 far, far away from the Virginia cities you have heard of. It’s 3 hours from Richmond, the state capitol, and 2 hours from Charlottesville, where University of Virginia lives, and 4.5 hours from the beach and from Washington, D.C. I’ll admit it: since I’ve moved to this part of the state, I’ve been ever so slightly annoyed that this was our big city. With its rinky-dink, four-gate airport and expensive flights. With its boring, sad mall. With its itsy-bitsy zoo.

But a couple weeks ago, I went to Roanoke’s CityWorks Xpo, a big-ideas placemaking conference downtown, and after a diet of solid inspiration for three straight days, I had a completely different view of the city. It looked like this:

Roanoke from City in the Square

Beautiful, right? Inside that light-brick building, the City Market building, is this little indie food court, with beautiful salads and sweet potato fries from Firefly Fare, and dumplings from Marco and Luca. That spiky building in back? That’s the avant garde Taubman Museum of Art, designed by a guy who used to work with Frank Gehry. In the square below, they hold regular farmers markets. On Saturday, near the tractor display, a crowd cheered on a troupe of cloggers.

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Thursday night, skaters from Roanoke’s roller derby team, the Star City Rollers, led the way to Kirk Street, where snaky lines were starting to form in front of the food trucks. This is the street where Quinn and I saw our folk rock idol Dar Williams perform at Kirk Avenue Music Hall last fall—one of the best music experiences I’ve ever had. We were shoehorned into this tiny brick storefront so it felt like Dar Williams was performing in my living room. Afterward, she sat out front and signed autographs, at which point I got to gibber unintelligibly to her about how seeing her in concert knocked a prominent item off my bucket list. (True.)

FullSizeRenderThen on the last day of the conference Beth Macy spoke about her new book Factory Man, and I got to gibber unintelligibly to her as well. She’s a Roanoke-based journalist whose book, about globalization and the offshoring of American businesses broadly, and the Bassett family of furniture companies specifically, hit the New York Times bestseller list. Tom Hanks wrote, “I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.” Then he bought up the rights, with plans to make an HBO miniseries out of it. So yeah, she’s famous. I was so wowed that I could barely remember my own name when I talked to her. (Also true.)

During CityWorks Xpo, I heard a professor from Hollins College, in Roanoke, talk about dramatizing the works of some of their most famous grads. (Annie Dillard went to Hollins; Tinker Creek is nearby.)

I heard a guy talk about revitalizing a sad neighborhood in Roanoke by living there.

I met a woman who started a nonprofit to teach kids how to cook and love healthy foods. After moving here from Maine she briefly thought, “What have I done?” Now, she says, she loves it. The city has changed in the past couple years. People are energetic. Things are happening. Everyone can feel it.

I can feel it now too.

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What I’m reading: Maine and Vermont edition

Melody WarnickBuy local, Reading and writing0 Comments

I have historically been more of a book borrower than a book buyer, but in light of the fact that I want EVERYONE I KNOW to buy my book, in hardback, at MSRP, when it comes out, I’m trying to mend my ways. Plus, books make amazing souvenirs. Here’s what made it into my book bag on a trip to New England.

Books that I bought in Maine and Vermont

 

  1. Three magazines about Maine from the amazing Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine: Down East, Eat Maine, and Zest Maine. Would it maybe surprise you to know that I’m writing about food in Maine right now?
  2. Mud Season, by Ellen Stimson. About a woman who moves her family to a farm in Vermont and … rues the day? Stay tuned.
  3. Delancey, the wonderful memoir about starting a restaurant by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. I’ve already read this one, but it was in Longfellow’s free pile of advanced reader copies. (Why do they give books away free in a bookstore? BECAUSE THEY LOVE US.) I’m happy to have an actual paper copy to highlight and wreck.
  4. Lynne Martin’s Home Sweet Anywhere, about an older couple who sells their house and travels around the world for a year. I think I’m just a sucker for any book with the word “home” in the title.
  5. Nick Hornby’s More Baths, Less Talking, a collection of his columns about books and reading from The Believer. When I say LOL, I very rarely mean it, but this—this deserves all the LOLs it gets. I love Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, but there’s something refreshing about a guy who admits he hates poetry and most classic literature and sometimes would rather watch TV sports. I’m a convert.

In case you’d missed the themes, it appears I’m gravitating toward books about finding home, leaving home, making great places, eating in said great places, writing, and, um, baths. If you want to follow along, friend me on Goodreads.

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