Why people fall in love with New York City

Melody WarnickGreat Towns, I Would Live There, Love Where You Live experiment, Place lustLeave a Comment

Shake Shack

Years ago, when we were just graduating from college, Quinn and I had a choice: Washington, D.C., or New York? In Washington he’d been offered a fine, upstanding job as a legislative aide to a U.S. senator; he would wear suits every day and work in an office next to the Capitol building. In New York, he would have a gig designing textbooks for McGraw-Hill. The two roads diverged in a serious way. The pros/cons list we had to make to handle that moving decision were epic.

Eventually, we went with D.C. I can admit now, sixteen years later, that we did it primarily because it seemed safer and easier, in so many ways. My skewed vision of New York City revolved around crime, rats, steaming subways, and soul-killing rent payments for squalid apartments. Frankly, the city scared the crap out of me.

Since then, I’ve visited Manhattan enough times to know that it’s not one nonstop episode of Law and Order: SVU. Last week, however, on a three-day trip to meet with my agent and editor, it felt for the first time like the city was pulling out all the stops to sway me into loving it (and to maybe give me a slight twinge of regret that I’ve never lived there).

The weather was insanely glorious. It was the first week of November and warm enough to shrug off jackets and sweaters. With the sense that this would be the season’s last hurrah, people were streaming out of their office buildings to luxuriate outdoors. I spent a good 45 minutes on a bench in Washington Square Park, people-watching and reading.

Washington Square Park

In fact, apart from a few meetings, the week’s to-do list went a little something like this:

  • walk
  • read
  • eat
  • think about eating
  • walk
  • browse in bookstores
  • look at stuff
  • walk
  • In This Is Where You Belong I explain why walking helps us fall in love with where you live, so no shock it does that when we’re on vacation. This time, I never once set foot on the subway. Not only did I clock between 17,000 and 24,000 steps each day, thus enabling guilt-free pizza consumption, I never had that vertigo-inducing feeling of emerging onto a street corner and having no idea which way is north. By walking aimlessly through streets that weren’t exactly on the way to somewhere, I finally figured my way around a little bit.

    High Line Donut

    Travel gives us a sped-up, high-intensity version of the place attachment process. By doing only what made me happy, I designed precisely the kind of experience that would make me fall in love with New York—or any city, for that matter. At the end of the week, I found myself sitting on a bench on the High Line (obligatory stop for all New York tourists), reading a book of Meghan Daum essays I’d bought from the Strand and eating a pumpkin donut from Donut Plant. And I wouldn’t mind doing that most days of the week.

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    Love Where You Live experiment: Go to a parade

    Melody WarnickBlacksburg, Love Where You Live experimentLeave a Comment

    Love Where You Live experiments

    It’s Wednesday night, dinnertime, and I’m weaving at top speed through the back roads of Blacksburg, trying to make it downtown before the snare drums do. Cranking my window down as I parallel park, I cock an ear. Are they coming? Is that a distant brass section or just the complaints of Main Street traffic? Finally jammed into a mostly legal space, I grab Ruby and run to the corner of Roanoke and Main. Two silent, stolid police cars are rolling toward us, signaling the start of the Blacksburg High School Homecoming Parade. We made it, and in that moment of relief the nostalgia hits me and it’s like I’m seven years old and back here again:

    Creative Commons/Ricky Brigante via Flickr

    Creative Commons/Ricky Brigante via Flickr

    Because for a long time, when you said “parade,” Disneyland is what I pictured. I grew up about ten miles north of the Happiest Place on Earth, and my family made enough pilgrimages that I came to be intimately familiar with the Disneyland parade ouevre. There was a Christmas parade with whirling snowflake roller skaters, an ever-changing summertime parade themed around the latest Disney blockbuster, and a classic parade where, eventually, my own friend dressed as Cinderella and waved Kate Middleton–style from a ballroom on wheels.

    My favorite was the Main Street Electric Parade. At 8 p.m sharp the lights along the parade route went out. Tootling electronica music blasted over the loudspeakers, heralding the arrival of blinking, stroke-inducing Disney characters. I loved it. Even now, the first bars of the Electric Parade theme send a pulse of dopamine through my body.

    For all the Disneyland parades I saw growing up, I didn’t see my first genuine municipal parade until I was 29 and living in Ames, Iowa. Nothing at Disneyland had prepared me for their Fourth of July parade. We sat in camping chairs for a good hour and a half watching an endless stream of tractors, hot rods, garbage trucks, fire trucks, bands, bikes, and patriotic floats. I had never been hit with such a pure, unadulterated blast of Americana. Disneyland, but real. I loved every second of it.

    Since then, it’s been important to me to live in a town where parades happen. In Blacksburg, we have a Fourth of July parade, a Christmas parade, and not one but two Homecoming parades in October. The one I’d rushed to tonight was the high school parade. (Virginia Tech’s would come on the weekend.) I know some of these kids. They’re playing with the marching band and sitting with the cheerleaders on top of the fire truck. They go to church with my family. I teach them at early-morning seminary.

    Parades are my favorite because I live here. These are my people. And because there’s something deliciously small-town and wholesome about a town that shuts down traffic so that high schoolers can ride in trucks and wave like kings and queens and throw candy at small children. I love that I live in a place where this matters. It makes me love Blacksburg more.

    Bburg Homecoming Parade

    Joan Didion supplies my book epigraph

    Melody WarnickUncategorizedLeave a Comment

    A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”—Joan Didion

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    How 800 residents of Powell, Wyoming, opened a store together

    Melody WarnickBuy local, Cool projects, Great TownsLeave a Comment

    Creative Commons/Jimmy Emerson, DVM

    Creative Commons/Jimmy Emerson, DVM (https://www.flickr.com/photos/auvet/)

    In 2002, when the last clothing store shut down in the ranching town of Powell, Wyoming, the 5,300 residents feared for the future of their Main Street, which was already disintegrating into a gap-toothed ghost town of shuttered storefronts and struggling shops. A Super Walmart had just passed them up for nearby Cody; wouldn’t everyone drive over there for their tube socks and pajamas? Other chain stores wanted nothing to do with Powell. It was too small.

    So a few locals, including the owner of an office supply store, a CPA, the head of the Powell Chamber of Commerce, and a jewelry store owner, took matters into their own hands. They made plans to open a community-owned, for-profit variety shop. It was conceived like a co-op. More than 800 of the town’s residents bought investment shares in increments of $500 or $1,000, although they were warned that it might be more like a donation if things didn’t work out as planned. Within a year, the group raised over $400,000 and opened the doors to the Powell Mercantile. Go under the candy-striped awning and you’ll find everything you’d expect to see in a bargain store, from t-shirts to jeans to tube socks.

    It was never the founders’ plan to operate a charity. “We knew we could do something that would help downtown, but we also wanted this to be a successful business,” explains Ken Witzeling, the former president of the Powell Mercantile’s board of directors. In its first year, the Merc, as people call it, beat expectations by doing $520,000 in business. Investors eventually got a 7 percent return.

    More impressively, the Merc has attracted additional small businesses to Powell’s downtown. The store’s success has even inspired copycat co-ops across the West in hard-scrabble ranching towns you’d never associate with the word “co-op,” like Ely, Nevada, and Worling, Wyoming. As Bill McKibben points out in his excellent book Deep Economy, “The Powell Mercantile hasn’t solved all the world’s problems; it buys from the same sweatshops the big boxes patronize. But it’s at least solved some of the town’s problems.”

    Have you ever heard of a project like this where you live? What do you think—would you invest?

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