Return of the natives: Young Kentuckians coming back to River City [News]

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This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

"I am not moving back to Kentucky.”

Famous last words from my husband Alex. He agreed that our life in New York City had become overwhelming, exhausting and unsustainable. He agreed that a smaller city would probably be a better place for us and for our baby daughter Maya — where we could afford something larger than a one-bedroom apartment and where we wouldn’t both have to work full-time-and-then-some. He even agreed that we would be better off closer to our families, all of whom were in Kentucky. But he was absolutely sure where he did not want to live. Our nearly a decade in New York might have been coming to an end, but the last thing he wanted to do was move to some backwater full of Holy Rollers, no art or music scene, no alcohol and no liberals.

In his defense, he didn’t know about Louisville. He grew up in a tiny town in eastern Kentucky, then moved to Lexington for college and medical school. I was born in Lexington and my family moved to Louisville when I was 12. I always considered Louisville my home, even when I was trying to escape it by moving to New York after college. When I lived here in high school, Louisville seemed too small to hold my big dreams. But that was then and this is now, and I’m 35 years old.

The real estate listings drew us in first. A four-bedroom house with mortgage payments less than our monthly New York rent? Yes, please! Then the job offers looked promising. We checked out a few art galleries. We drove through some beautiful neighborhoods. We visited the Mayan Cafe on one of our tentative house-hunting trips, ate those fabled lima beans, and decided that Louisville was looking possible, quite possible. And then probable. And then a done deal.

Funny enough, I keep hearing about other people who have come back to Louisville. (Thanks, Facebook!) Every person I make contact with names several other people they know who are back or on their way back. Over the past few months, I’ve spent some time connecting with some other returning “expatriates” to hear about what their experience has been like, and what they can teach me about relearning my hometown.

I met up with Laura Morton at the Heine Brothers Coffee on Chenoweth Lane. She’d asked me, “Is there a Heine Brothers you go to?” — which struck me as a very Louisville thing to say. We knew each other in college, at the University of Kentucky, when I was the musical director for a revue she was in called “All That Spaz.” She has short auburn hair and a smile that takes over her face. Any conversation with her is bound to include at least three goofy voices and two foreign accents, as befits a former actor. Laura, 33, grew up in St. Matthews, graduated from YPAS and is now a writer and filmmaker, while also working toward a master’s degree in creative writing at Spalding University. She writes theater reviews for LEO. “There’s a lot of good work,” she says of local theater. “I’ve been happily surprised that it’s not some strange, weird community theater where people staple costumes together.”

She moved to New York after college, and spent brief stints in North Carolina and Los Angeles before returning to Louisville more than two years ago. She had tried returning to Louisville a few years before that, but couldn’t take it. “You go to Kroger at two in the morning, you’re going to run into four people you went to high school with,” she said. “I just really didn’t want to be here. I wanted to not be in my hometown.”

Just before her move from North Carolina to California, she spent a few days in Louisville with her family, and fell in love with the city all over again. She went ahead with the move to Los Angeles and spent about six months there before turning back for Louisville. I asked if she felt any sense of defeat when she returned home.

“No, I didn’t feel that,” she said, shaking her head. “I was always really worried that other people would see it like that. If I saw people that I grew up with, I would almost have to spill out, ‘I’ve done other things, I got out of this place.’ But most everyone that I knew has come back, has chosen to live here. So it feels much more like a choice than, ‘Well, I couldn’t do it anywhere else.’”

*****

It’s not just artsy types who have moved back. I met up with Brendan and Amy Cahill at the Panera Bread adjacent to the Aegon Building, a few floors below Amy’s office at Stites & Harbison. The couple, both 41, met in Louisville (she grew up here, he’s from Massachusetts) and moved to Washington, D.C., in 2001. They were back in town five years later, and they couldn’t be happier about their decision to return. But they both emphasized that they had to leave in order to create the life they have now.

Amy was a relatively new attorney in 2000 when she decided she wanted to specialize in intellectual-property litigation. She chose a one-year graduate program in Washington, D.C., which meant leaving her then-boyfriend Brendan behind in Louisville. A year later, Brendan left his job with GE Plastics and joined her in D.C., starting a consulting company that had him traveling all over the country. They lived in a tiny apartment with their two pugs and immersed themselves in city life.

By 2004 they’d been married a year, had a two-bedroom fixer-upper house in Arlington, Va., and a brand-new baby, Joseph. Amy had a 30-minute commute  and Brendan was flying out every few days. Being in a crowded urban area seemed a lot less fun with a baby. By the time their second child, Harvey, came along in 2006, they were well into planning their move back to Louisville.

For Amy, much of it boiled down to, of all things, swimming pools. She grew up swimming at the Louisville Boat Club, but in the Washington area it wasn’t so simple. “This sounds ridiculous, but I couldn’t quite figure out how do to that there,” she told me. “There were the public pools, and that was . . . OK. There were the very expensive clubs with very long waiting lists, and it didn’t matter if we could afford it because we still couldn’t get in because we’re not from there and we don’t know people. I just thought, ‘Where are my kids going to swim?’”

She continued: “I think if you are in a place long enough, you do find your way, and it eventually feels like home. But at some point you ask, ‘What am I going to sacrifice to get there, when I have an alternative that might suit?’”

Amy started scoping out jobs in Louisville, and found there were opportunities for her specialty in town, including the job she eventually took at Stites & Harbison. Brendan had written a business plan for his own silicone manufacturing company, but couldn’t find people with the right skills in the D.C. area. As it turns out, this part of the country is known as “Plastics Alley” because of the concentration of skilled people and companies, plus the low cost of electricity. Everything came together and they settled in eastern Jefferson County in June 2006. Their company, PTG Silicones, opened in May 2007. Their third son, Lee, came along in 2008.

Amy Cahill said she couldn’t be doing the job she loves if she had never left Louisville, because of the education and experience she gained during her time in Washington. “It would never have worked had I stayed here,” she said. “I had to go out to come back in.”

Back in the spring, Laura Morton suggested I meet her friend Typh Hainer Merwarth, who moved back from San Francisco last fall with her husband Rich and their young daughter Soleil. They bought a classic little bungalow in the Highlands, and on the day I visited, they were still unpacking and getting ready for their first Derby party in their new home. Stacks of Rich’s paintings leaned against the walls, and cardboard boxes were piled underneath the dining room table, providing the perfect hiding place for a roaming cat.

Typh moved to Anchorage with her parents and sister as a teenager, graduated from Manual, then studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati. She lived in New York City twice between 1999 and 2006, mostly working as a textile designer, with a brief return home to work on starting her own knitwear line. I could envision her competing on Project Runway, with her choppy haircut, lip ring and striped magenta pants. She seems to have an optimistic view of life, but she doesn’t conceal the downsides of being back home as well. (How, we wondered, can there not be a Trader Joe’s in Louisville?) I brought my daughter, about the same age as Soleil, and the two girls played together while we talked.

Along with her husband, a multimedia designer originally from Ohio, she moved to San Francisco in 2006, and they loved living there. “It totally aligned with our viewpoints,” she said. “We’re vegetarians, we’re all about sustainable lifestyles; we’re liberal, so all of that fit in. It was wild to be in a place which made us feel conservative.”

I asked her what she missed most about living in a big city. “I miss the limelight — I miss having the connections, just that sensation of being connected. There was almost a pride about not living in Louisville, about going somewhere else and then being like, ‘Yeah, I live in New York’ when I came back (for visits). That in itself was something.”

Family and friends in Louisville were a big draw back, but both Typh, 36, and Rich, 34, have had to adjust their career expectations. In the creative fields they chose it can be harder to find satisfying work in a place like Louisville, and it’s usually impossible to earn the higher salaries that are standard in larger cities. He is currently specializing in website design and content for a local agency. “The job Rich got, in a lot of ways, is exactly what he’s always wanted,” Typh said. “It’s a really hip, young company, and it’s very specific to what he’s talented at. But the salary is literally half of what he was making in California.”

“My whole thing is about fashion design,” she said, “and there’s not many places you can do that in America. New York is pretty much it.” A friend connected her with the local figure skating community, and she’s been making costumes for skaters, as well as doing costume design for a couple of local theater companies. “I miss having a career, but what I was doing, I can’t do it here. So I’m going to have to start up my own business or learn some new skills,” she said.

*****

I met up with George Parker Jr., 33, and Kiley Lane, 30, at yet another Heine Brothers, where they sat across the table from me and finished each other’s sentences the way very in-tune couples do. They sipped coffee from the reusable mugs they had brought along, and both of them picked at a muffin that sat in front of Lane. They both emphasized that Louisville is where they plan to be for the rest of their lives. He grew up in Louisville, she in Lexington. They’re engaged and operate a media production company as well as an Internet-based TV station that focuses on environmental issues.

“We can be anywhere with what we’re doing,” Parker said. “From working on feature films to doing other special projects, we know that those things will take us places. But when it comes to having that home base, these are the roots we’re trying to build and grow right here.”

Parker and Lane say that Louisville is a good place to start a business because startup costs can be relatively low, and Louisville’s central location is good for connecting to the rest of the country. They live in Clifton Heights and bike to their office on East Market Street. “If you create something that people are interested in, it’s easy to get people behind you,” he said. “People are always willing to give advice and not charge for it. Space is a lot cheaper here too.”

They admitted some difficulty competing for production jobs against companies in bigger cities. “A lot of people think they’re going to get a better product from New York or L.A. or (some other) bigger city, but a lot of people need to realize that the people who are starting their own businesses in Louisville have moved back from those cities,” he said. “When they say, ‘Oh, this is a Louisville-based company and I don’t know if it’s as good as the company in New York,’ they need to realize that they are hiring that New York person. That’s the same person you would have hired up there. They just happen to have decided they wanted to come back here.”

I was beginning to see a pattern here: Many of us who have moved back didn’t flee a life that wasn’t working. We still have ambition, drive and curiosity — some of the things that took us away from Louisville in the first place. We didn’t slink home in defeat; we banked on the fact that Louisville is a place where some of our goals can be realized.

It was wrenching to leave New York and all of our friends there when we returned to Kentucky nearly a year and a half ago, but as we settled into our new home in Norton Commons, there was also some relief. I felt my jaw start to unclench. Our daily lives were simplified, giving us more time to be together. And, oh, we have so much space.

But we’re definitely still adjusting. Alex and I have had to relearn the art of small talk with strangers, and we’ve had to remember not to walk so damn fast. We’re in a place where most people are more politically conservative than we are. We’re finding out that taking care of a house and a yard is a lot of work.

We went to the Merwarths’ home on Derby Day, and it was bittersweet to be back in Louisville for the biggest day of the year. For the past several years, we hosted a Derby party at our apartment in New York, and we had finally educated our Big Apple friends about how a proper Derby party works. It was nice to go to a regular old neighborhood party in Louisville this year, with people who knew the traditions in their bones. I teared up during “My Old Kentucky Home,” as usual, but I wasn’t the only one. I was so glad we were there, and at the same time, I was missing our little New York apartment with all of our friends crowded around the TV. 

If home is where the heart is, part of my heart will always be in New York. I love getting to walk those busy streets again when we visit, to feel like I’m part of a great energetic crowd. Some of our best friends in the world are there, and I’m so grateful that I got to live there for a while.

But I’m happy when the plane lands again in Louisville, because we’re building a life here that allows us to do some of the things we really want to do, not just scramble for a living. I’m writing more than I ever have, and I’ve had time to start exercising again and get in better shape. My husband has been writing songs for years, and is finally putting together an album with some collaborators he found here. Our daughter, now two, has her own room, relaxed parents and adoring grandparents nearby who visit all the time.

No, we don’t have the entire world just a subway ride away anymore. But we have just about everything we need, right here at home.