Melody Warnick’s new book is about falling in love – with the place where you live. Warnick used to be what she calls a “Mover” rather than a “Stayer;” she had moved over and over again before landing in Blacksburg, Virginia with her husband and two kids. She had lived in Austin, Texas, just before, a city that for many people equals love at first sight. Blacksburg wasn’t like that. Could she find ways to get herself to love her new town? More significantly, could she discover ways that anyone could use to make the place where they happen to live the place where they truly belong?
In This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, Warnick takes us along as she interviews experts, shares relevant research and statistics, and visits cities and towns experimenting with their own innovations in loving where you live. At the heart of the book is her own journey from a newbie who needed to be convinced that Blacksburg deserved her love to the person who does fall in love, though not at all in the passive way that the phrase seems to suggest. Becoming attached to the place where you live is an active process. People need to commit to it, work at it, and be patient and persistent.
Melody Warnick describes her various efforts to belong to Blacksburg as “Love Where You Live experiments.” Each chapter explores a different kind of experiment, as indicated by the titles:
- “Lace Up Your Sneakers”
- “Buy Local”
- “Say Hi to Your Neighbors”
- “Do Something Fun”
- “Commune with Nature”
- “Eat Local Food”
- “Get More Political”
- “Create Something”
- “Stay Local”
- “Settle Down”
The chapters are engagingly written. They often open with an anecdote, either from the life of someone who made their own town better or from Warnick’s own life. Then comes a much more diverse array of stories and examples and research than the chapter titles intimate. Each chapter ends with a “Love Your City Checklist” of suggestions for how to become more attached to the place where you live.
Warnick also developed a set of eleven “Love Where You Live Principles.” They are spelled out on the last page of the book. They include, for example, “If you want to love your town, act like someone who loves your town would act;” “Relationships with people are what make you feel most at home;” and “When you invest, you feel invested.”
Melody Warnick was game for all sorts of experiments in loving the place where she lived. They included, for example, marching in the town parade, bringing homemade muffins to her neighbors in celebration of National Good Neighbor Day, learning to love Hokie football, showing up for a cash mob (different from a flash mob), and marking her birthday by completing seventeen random acts of kindness toward strangers. I often shook my head when reading these accounts, thinking there was not a chance I would do such things, but I savored the vicarious experience of tagging along as a reader.
Although the focus of This Is Where You Belong is about building an attachment to your town, the book is also, indirectly, a set of suggestions for making friends. It shines at that, taking readers far beyond the typical “go to a Meetup” and “be a volunteer.”
Occasionally, I was disappointed with Melody Warnick’s preoccupation with nuclear families. Sometimes she seemed to just assume that everyone is married with children, when in fact there are currently more households in the U.S. consisting of single people living alone than households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids. For example, one of her suggestions is to “save change in a jar and let your family decide which local organization to donate to…” She also included a snide remark about fifty-something single woman. I did notice, though, that some of the people Warnick described in affectionate and laudatory ways seemed to be single people with no children of their own.
The question I pondered as I read This Is Where You Belong was whether any person could come to love any town if they tried hard enough for long enough. Probably not, was my ultimate conclusion. Sure, many of us could come to feel more attached to many different kinds places if we made the effort. But there have been places that filled me with despair in just the few moments it took to drive through them. Maybe that’s just my own shortcoming. Warnick interviewed people who settled in and made big improvements to some of the most unlikely places, not as acts of charity but of love.
This Is Where You Belong may well be one of those books that truly makes a difference in the world, even if only by inspiring each of its readers to do a few small things to contribute to their towns. Midway through the book, I put it down and followed through with a contribution I had been planning to make (but kept forgetting) to the preservation of the nearby coastal bluffs that I so cherish. Then I looked up the calendar of local events and decided to try one or two that in my previous 16 years in Santa Barbara, I had totally ignored. Since reading the book, I’ve made a point of buying locally even when online purchases would have been cheaper and more convenient. Some of the “love where you live” experiments, such as walking in beautiful places and frequenting farmers’ markets, were already part of my everyday life. With my newfound appreciation for the ways in which those kinds of acts enhanced my community, I felt even better about doing them. As Warnick persuasively argues, the things we do for the places where we live are often good for us, too; they can make us happier and healthier, and multiply and deepen our bonds with other people.
This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live
Viking, June 2016
Hardcover, 308 pages