Dear Akron

“Dear Akron, I'm not from you, but you've made me your own, and there's no place else I'd rather be.”

Toronto native Lindsay Zier-Vogel wants you to write a love letter to your city. Maybe something like this:

“Dear Toronto, You're a big ol' city but I love that I still have small world encounters on your streets.”

Or this:

“Dear Toronto, Sometimes I pretend your tall buildings are a pop-up book when I look at them from balconies. It's beautiful.”

If Zier-Vogel happens to catch you walking by a table she's set up for The Love Lettering Project, her homegrown effort to get people to praise their place, she'll supply the paper, markers, and airmail envelopes. You just have to come up with the sentiment, in the form of a specific bit of praise for an event, a neighborhood, a restaurant, a store, a park, a tree, a building, or anything else that makes you feel more in love with where you live. For instance:

“I love how each of your neighbourhoods is like visiting a new world. It's magic.”

Writing a love letter to your place is arguably easier than writing one to the object of your affection. Your city won't reject you. It won't analyze your letter for unintended insults.

Yet for most of us, complaining about where we live—its weather, its unreliable transit system, its crappy schools—becomes as unconscious and automatic as breathing. Sometimes, says Zier-Vogel, a 35-year-old who's lived in Toronto her entire life, passersby who see her Love Lettering Project booth propose to write a hate letter instead. They'll rant for a few minutes about what they despise about Toronto, then storm off when they're told that only love letters are allowed.

Joseph Michael/The Love Lettering Project
Eighty-five percent of the time, "those same people end up turning around and beelining back and saying, 'I thought of something,'" she says. That's the moment Zier-Vogel waits for, and really the whole point of the Love Lettering Project.

Writing an ode to your place forces you to reflect on and appreciate its assets, which makes you feel more place attached—which, in turn, makes you happier. "Once you start thinking about things that work in your city, you see the things that work in your city. It's that inevitable lens shift," she says.

Originally, the Love Lettering Project started as a whimsical personal exercise. Beginning in 2004, Zier-Vogel would periodically write love poems to the city, slip them into airmail envelopes, and hide them where strangers would stumble across them. One year she wrote 500 letters, secreting them all over town—on car windshields, inside library books. She loved the thrill of hiding the envelopes, the way it made the city exciting again.

The Love Lettering Project

Eventually, her friends who knew about the project were begging to join in. So in 2012, Zier-Vogel expanded her letter writing campaign into a broader initiative to get people to share their fond feelings for where they lived. Mostly she works in Ontario, but recently she's taken her Love Lettering Project to cities in the Northwest Territories and the United Kingdom.

“Dear Yellowknife, I love that my friends in your city are as plentiful as the fish in your lakes.”

“Dear Whitehorse, I love your warm, dry summers, they're worth the long winters. I love your bright, cool nights, they're worth the short fall days. I love your small population, and that I see locals almost anywhere I go. Your stores, landmarks, and good-hearted people, but most of all, I love your climate, fresh air, and silence, for it's what makes you different from other cities, and sets you apart.”

City love letters can be transformative for both the writer and the reader. Ideally, the affection they evoke make residents more inclined to stay put. That's the hope behind a similar stateside love letter project called Dear Akron, started in summer 2015 by a 31-year-old Akron, Ohio, native named Amber Genet.

Genet had a hundred reasons to adore Akron, but northeast Ohio's brain drain crisis suggested that other residents didn't share the vision. "I wanted people to have that aha moment of 'I'm not stuck here, I choose to be here,'" she says. A $5,000 grant from the Toronto nonprofit 8-80 Cities pays for supplies, and Genet received mentoring from artist and creative interventionist Hunter Franks.

At events, Genet and a few volunteers set up a table at events, put out blank postcards and a slew of markers, scissors, and glue, and ask people to write a letter that starts, "Dear Akron."

“Dear Akron, I had no clue you'd be this cool when I moved here. Thanks for six awesome years and counting.”

“Dear Akron, Thank you for encouraging recycling and the parks, trails, and libraries!”

“Dear Akron, Thank you for such a warm welcome!”

“Dear Akron, I'm not from you, but you've made me your own, and there's no place else I'd rather be.”

Unlike the Love Lettering Project letters, which are hidden by the writer, the Dear Akron letters are collected—400 since the project began in July, with a goal of 1,000 within a year. Eventually, they'll be exhibited in a gallery or turned into a coffee table book.

Genet hopes that leafing through the letters and seeing what other people cherish about Akron will inspire more people to get attached and involved. "It's creating this movement of 'Hey, Akron's a great place to be.'"

One time, a child wrote,

“Dear Akron, you're the best planet in the world.”

The boy's mom corrected him: "Akron's not a planet."

"I don't care," replied the boy, "it's the best."

How to write a love letter to your city

1. Gather your supplies: paper, crayons, markers, pencils, stickers, glitter, glue, scissors. Make it as simple or elaborate as you want.

2. Think about the things in your city that make you love it. Consider the places you eat, shop, walk, bike, the events you love, the rituals you rely on, the things you would miss if you moved away. Be specific.

3. Write your love letter by hand. Start it "Dear [name of your city].” Sign it if you want, or leave it anonymous. Your choice.

5. Put your letter in an envelope. (Zier-Vogel just writes "Love" on the outside, but you could do something like "Open me.") Then hide it somewhere intentional, by, say, weaving it between a bike's spokes or leaving it under the windshield as a much preferred alternative to a parking ticket. Make the finder feel like you left it just for them.

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