I shouldn’t have to defend where I live

A discourse exploring the intersection of geography, culture and identity

Last week, I went back home to San Francisco for a tech conference. Upon arriving at the airport, a wave of nostalgia and familiarity swept over me— it was my first time visiting since moving to Charlottesville, and I had the opportunity to reconnect with my family and old friends.

At the same time, however, I felt like a foreigner to the city that I grew up in, that I knew as well as the back of my hand. Perhaps that’s an outcome of living in a totally new environment that’s so far removed from San Francisco, and instead of peering out from the city, I was merely a visitor peering in.

This unfamiliar feeling was only exacerbated by my conversations with individuals I met from the conference.

“Where are you from?” someone would ask.

“I grew up in San Francisco, but now I live in Charlottesville, VA.” I would respond.

“Ugh, Charlottesville? Why?” they would respond.

I never took offense to these responses. After all, these responses are somewhat warranted — the college town of 40,000 people slid under most people’s radars until the events that tore through headlines in August. While the media may not have portrayed Charlottesville in the best light, one thing is clear: seeing is believing. Just look at the search results for a Google image search of “Charlottesville”:

Even Google’s AI driven associated keywords point to the violence displayed in August! If Google were my only source of information, I wouldn’t want to live in Charlottesville either.

But I’m not here to talk about the events in August, but rather why I made the decision to move from what some people think is the best city in the world (San Francisco) to a previously little-known town in Virginia that everyone thinks is in North Carolina, despite that I work in the software industry. So let’s begin.

I was tired of living in a city.

I spent 18 years of my life going to school in downtown San Francisco, then the following 4 years attending college in Philadelphia. I needed to take a break from the congestion that clogs the city, the garbage that overruns the streets, and above all, the lack of opportunity to reflect and spend time looking inward. While this point is highly subjective, I found that while I was living in these cities, the focus of most individuals is on one thing: money. How do I make more? What’s the highest paying job?

This realization came while studying at Penn, a school with a renowned business program that overshadows the school’s social and professional culture. It was halfway through my sophomore year that I realized I didn’t really want to study economics. I had only initially pursued it because all of my life I had a mental model of having a degree in economics correlates to big money. I realized I wasn’t someone that wanted to wear a suit everyday, carry around a leather-bound notepad or refresh my Linkedin daily to see if I had hit 500+ connections yet.

I’m certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with any of these desires, but none of these things are really in line with my own personal core values. And I’ve found that since moving away from the city, I’ve had an incredible sense of liberation from these things that felt toxic to me while living in a city.

There’s great tech outside of San Francisco. Seriously.

I don’t disagree that San Francisco is indeed a hub where the best and brightest go to push the boundaries of innovation. While the jobs and large companies are primarily situated in the Bay Area, there are also amazing opportunities elsewhere. Perhaps other areas don’t have the same kind of saturation or recognition, but the company I work at in Charlottesville, for example, produces amazing work for some of the biggest companies in the world. The company truly values its employees and believes in autonomy and personal responsibility, leading to engaged and happy employees. The result? We’ve made Glassdoor’s list of Best Places to Work year after year. (We’re hiring, btw)

And Charlottesville isn’t the only exception. Many areas outside of large cities are beginning to attract large or small companies and entrepreneurs alike, including Boulder, CO, Raleigh-Durham, NC, or Austin, TX, to name a few.

My commute doesn’t suck.

One of the most important things to me is being efficient with my time. For me, this means being able to live near downtown, where I can bike to work every single day.

Google Maps says 6 minutes, but it takes me about three and a half minutes (I pedal hard). This leaves me time to slowly get up with the sun in the morning, take my time making coffee, doing some yoga, taking the dog to the park across the street, AND fix both breakfast and lunch before leaving home. If the weather is nice, I’ll even drive down to the river to skate a few miles on the path before work. Minimizing my commute time truly allows me to feel more in control of my work-life balance.

The downtown pedestrian mall. 😍

The office is located on the historic downtown pedestrian mall. For about five blocks on parallel sides of the street are independent storefronts, including coffeeshops, theaters, artisan shops, restaurants, and even an outdoor concert pavilion. On a nice day, the entire town is out here enjoying the ambiance that pervades these few blocks.

Cheap cost of living.

Sure, Charlottesville isn’t the cheapest, but what you pay for a one bedroom apartment by the downtown mall is about 3 times cheaper than what you’ll find in San Francisco. I won’t dwell on this subject much as it’s pretty objective, and I’ll just say that I have yet to be deterred by anything here that I’ve considered “too expensive”.

The immediate access to nature.

I try to spend as much time outdoors as I realistically can. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the access to nature here. There’s an amazing trail that goes up a local mountain (Carter Mountain) that’s only a 6 minute drive from where I live, and another trail (Rivanna Trail) that spans the circumference of the town, about 22 miles in total. Farm land on rolling hills surround Charlottesville proper that extends into the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park, a short 20 minute drive to the park entrance from Charlottesville.

Another amazing aspect of living in a town like Charlottesville — there’s very little light pollution, and I’m able to see a plethora of stars that fill the sky on any given night. Head 20 minutes out of town towards the mountains and the night sky gets even brighter.

Super dog friendly!

Buster has an incredible quality of life here. We’ll go for walks on the downtown mall, where groups of preteens won’t let me walk since Buster demands their attention. He’ll join other canine friends at the dog park for a solid romp. We’ll run together on trails off leash until he’s dog-tired. If he’s happy, I’m happy.

The community.

There’s so much to be said here because the Charlottesville community is unique to each citizen, but each one of us helps form a core component of the town itself. For me personally, I’ve found a second family at our local climbing gym. This 3000 sq. foot rag-tag climbing facility has greasy holds and probably breaks a bunch of fire safety codes, but I’ve found my best friends through the climbing community.

Another example: last year, a chef at Lampo, a local pizza joint in town, unfortunately lost her hand in a meat-grinding accident. A GoFundMe page was set up and the Charlottesville community collectively raised over $100,000 for her. Her husband describes Charlottesville:

“Charlottesville is the truest sense of community I have ever seen in my life. We are just in awe of how the community has helped in so many both monetarily, emotionally, and physically,” he said. “The restaurant scene in Charlottesville is as close knit as could be.”

Finally, everyone already knows about the horrible events that occurred in Charlottesville last August. Since then, the Charlottesville community has come together in so many ways, but one of the highlights was certainly around the organization of the Charlottesville Chalkfest. It’s mission was to recognize serious social issues that are in need of acknowledgement and resolution through creating a city-wide event that helped us learn each others’ stories and lay the foundation for building community connections.

Below is a video produced by Margo Bulka and her team that helped organize the initiative. In 90 seconds, it captures the essence of the beauty produced by the various individuals and microcosms that form the Charlottesville community.

It’s beyond evident that people in Charlottesville really care about each other.

Closing thoughts.

Charlottesville is incredibly unique: while it has a population under 50,000 people, we have a downtown pedestrian mall, a ton of mom-and-pop shops, an active top-tier university (UVA), incredible access to nature, and an incredibly progressive community that ensures that everyone is welcome here. It makes me feel sad when I have to defend such a great place to people outside who associate our town with hateful things.

I also want to be clear that deciding to move away from a city, especially right after college, isn’t the right decision for everyone. In fact, if you’ve never lived in San Francisco and have the opportunity to, I would encourage you to try it out. I absolutely love the city, but for me, the city will always be there.

Taking a step back and learning that it’s okay to try something different and out of my comfort zone helps facilitate personal growth. Of course Charlottesville isn’t perfect, but I’ve already learned so much about myself and what I value in the place I live.

And I can’t be more proud to call Charlottesville my home.

Written by

Founding Designer @learnmonthly. Previously @getstream @MojoTech @WillowtreeApps @KPCB Design Fellow @Nextdoor | www.jeffwang.co

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