Interview with Allen
The following is a lightly edited transcript of a phone interview with Allen by BestPlaces Newsletter Manager Emma Butterfield, conducted with Douglas firs outside her window in Portland, Oregon.
BestPlaces: What are important things to keep in mind when exploring a move to a new place?
Allen: A “sense of place” is very high on my list. It can outweigh statistics, which are important to gather, but don’t show the full picture. Employing the City Compare tool is very useful, but you do yourself a disservice if you stop there. If you’re smart, you’ll allow the information that the tool provides to raise as many questions in your mind as it answers – and then dig deeper.
For example, if you’re checking crime rates, call the police department in a city that’s caught your eye, and ask someone what’s driving crime up or down there, and why. You might think they wouldn’t have time for you, but tell them that you respect their profession and their expertise, and you’ll be through their door in no time.
Don’t overlook to write reviewers on BestPlaces and to ask them lots of questions – the freedom that BestPlaces gives you to contact reviewers is one of its most useful features. And for truly helpful answers, ask open-ended questions. Rather than “What’s the best supermarket chain in your town?”, try “Does your food dollar stretch as far there as where you used to live?” The second question is far more likely to get you a genuinely informative response. It's also crucial to make a few final inquiries like, “What have I not asked about that you think I should know to form an accurate picture of your community?” and “Who can you refer me to among your neighbors, friends, and coworkers, to get an even deeper idea of what life is like where you live, or maybe even a completely different angle on it than you present?” By the way, saying a “deeper” rather than a “better” idea is important, because you don’t want a reviewer to think their input wasn’t valuable.
BestPlaces: What key aspects make a town worth a visit or qualify it as a place to live?
Allen: Some are solid and obvious, like safety, schools for kids, and job opportunities. More touchy-feely things carry weight too, such as whether sunsets are beautiful and people are neighborly. It’s good to know if people like to go out and eat. Or if they prefer to stay home with family, and if that’s the case, how you’d get into their loop of intimacy.
But what towers over all for me is whether a town gives you the sensation that it has a unique and sometimes even pressingly felt presence – that’s the “sense of place” I mentioned earlier. It’s invisible, like the tug of a magnet, yet you’ll feel it, if it’s there. And if it really resonates with you, it can make of a town the place where, if you already lived there and left, you’d pine to return – and finally would one day, grateful to be back. This implies examining your feelings, of course, what I call traversing your inner landscape, to see if the outer landscape suits you.