BY MELANIE WOLKOFF WACHSMAN
I’m not overly materialistic, but I will admit that a diamond can make you do crazy things.
Case in point: I got one (in the form of an engagement ring), and then not only agreed to embark on a new life with someone I love, I agreed to move to Louisville to do it. This city on the river seemed many moons removed from our Chicago dwellings.
On our first date, my now-husband assured me he’d never move back to his hometown. This, of course, was uttered before an employer hand-picked him and made him a “dream” job offer he couldn’t refuse.
So after much cajoling on his part, I traded in the security card to my beloved studio high-rise apartment, with its views of Wrigley Field, Lakeshore Drive and the skyline, for keys to a carriage house, which I learned was a fancy name for an apartment above a garage.
I was excited to start this new, and perhaps more domesticated life. We envisioned buying a house, something we could not afford in Chicago, and getting a dog, something we didn’t have time for previously.
His childhood friends, all of whom live away from Louisville, were jealous. They wistfully spoke of returning one day. Surely, they said, I would come to love — no, revere — Louisville just as much as those born and raised here.
What they didn’t tell me was that not growing up here would keep me at an arm’s length disadvantage.
Don’t get me wrong: Louisville is a friendly city. Neighbors greet you. People hold doors open for you. But while I’ve met a handful of locals, I’ve hung out with far fewer. There’s a distinct difference. More often than not I feel like the girl who shows up at a party in a cocktail dress when everyone else is in jeans (that actually happened).
I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it me, or did other transplants find it daunting to gain acceptance beyond mere superficiality?
The company line
With corporations like Humana, Brown-Forman, UPS, Papa John’s and Yum!, there’s a steady and ongoing effort to recruit prospective employees who aren’t from Louisville. But here’s the question that nagged at me: Is Louisville just a resume pit stop or is it a place to call home?
Like most things, it depends on who you ask.
Recruiters are quick to assure us that transplants love the city. Renee Biles, business development manager for Manpower Professional, a staffing organization, has seen several out-of-state candidates relocate to the River City and stay.
“Initially, out-of-state job candidates think Louisville’s a small town with not much to offer, but Louisville’s actually a very well-kept secret,” she says.
“I can’t think of a situation where someone left because Louisville didn’t work for them,” adds Jackie Strange, vice president of employment practices at Brown-Forman. “It’s the contrary. We sell the city hard, and after a year or two they don’t want to leave.”
Lindsay Carter might be a poster child for their case.
Following graduation from the University of North Carolina, Carter joined AmeriCorps, the domestic branch of the Peace Corps, and found herself grant-writing and fundraising at Lac Viet Academy, a non-profit instructional program and resource center serving immigrant children and their families in Louisville’s South End.
She initially saw her move as temporary, but the 24-year-old Asheville, N.C., native now plans to stay a while. She loves her home in the Highlands because “you know your neighbors and always see the same people around.”
She’s a fan of bluegrass music, and you’ll often find her at the Rudyard Kipling. During college basketball season, Carter often catches her beloved Tar Heels on TV at Cumberland Brews, Buffalo Wild Wings or Big Dave’s Outpost.
She’s made many friends here, too. She hangs with 17 other Vistas (Volunteers in Service through America), and has met new friends at her gym (Baptist East/Milestone Wellness Center) and through various associations and clubs.
“I made a point to meet people through things I like to do, like volunteer,” says Carter. “I’ve heard Louisville can be cliquish, but I haven’t found that to be true. People are friendly and easy to get to know.”
But others have had different experiences.
A girls’ town
On Sunday mornings, you’ll often find Phoenix Lindsey-Hall at North End Café slouched over tofu scramble and hushpuppies (“honey butter so good it drips down your hands,” she says), rehashing the previous night’s events with her girlfriends.
Those activities may have included a visit to Mag Bar or Connections, although she hates admitting to the latter. On this morning, conversation shifts to the evening’s “L-Word” viewing party, where Lindsey-Hall encourages her friends to bring friends. Cute friends.
Lindsey-Hall, 24, a Greensboro, N.C. native and a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, was involved in a serious relationship when she moved to Louisville a year and a half ago. Her partner at the time is a native.
The relationship ended, leaving Lindsey-Hall single in a city where she’d never been alone. Making matters worse, her consulting grant expires this month.
But she’s not worried. Instead of moving on, she plans to make Louisville home, sans girlfriend and job.
“I’ll job-hunt in Louisville,” she says. “I want to continue in queer-rights activism. My fingers are crossed that I won’t have to wait tables again. People are friendly, but in the Deep South people seem quicker to greet you or make eye contact.”
Although she met many of her friends through her ex-girlfriend, she doesn’t see a problem because she finds Louisville’s queer community progressive. “Since this is the biggest city in Kentucky, many gay people move here to find comfort,” she says.
She wishes Louisville had a drag troupe, a roller derby league and/or a queer community center. But for now, she’s content with her home in Crescent Hill, her Sunday brunches and her “L-Word” viewing parties.
“Louisville is an OK place to be, ultimately,” she says. “People leave but tend to come back, especially if they were born here. I can always come back here and find friends.”
Starting from scratch
After speaking to Carter and Lindsey-Hall and hearing of their relatively easy adjustments, I was envious. Maybe it was me. Maybe I was the problem. Then I spoke with Dontai Smalls.
On a recent Friday night, Smalls, 29, leaned against the red-hued walls of Havana Rumba, relaxing with a few friends who cradled mojitos while waiting for a table.
Smalls has a wide, infectious smile and laughs easily and often, but he also has a serious side. As he discussed Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat,” his group was shown to its table. Like Smalls, all were transplants.
“I don’t actively seek out transplants, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of my friends are Louisville natives who never left Louisville,” says Smalls, who hails from Charleston, S. C.
After earning an undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., Smalls enrolled in Georgetown University Law School. To make ends meet he worked for UPS in its legislative/government affairs office, a job he continued after getting his law degree and passing the bar.
His boss told him about an opportunity to transfer to the legal affairs office in Louisville, but Smalls needed convincing. “My expectations weren’t the best,” he admits, but he gave it a shot and says he was “pleasantly surprised when I first got here. It was more urban than I thought in regards to restaurants and the arts and cultural scene.”
Smalls soon joined the Louisville Urban League Young Professionals (LULYP) and the Young Professionals Association of Louisville (YPAL). He also works with the YMCA Black Achievers.
Yet he still finds it difficult to meet people.
“I didn’t realize how much my network of D.C. friends was readily available and how I constantly met people through that,” he says. “Here I have to start from scratch and build.”
He quickly noticed that Louisvillians in his age group tend to stay in their own neighborhoods, which limits the dating pool compared to D.C. “To be honest,” he says, “I find the dating scene too serious. I’m not necessarily ready to settle down and get married. Here the attitude is, ‘Why not? What’s wrong with you? You’re 29.’”
He’s making the best of Louisville, but he doesn’t foresee putting down roots. Like me, he hasn’t hooked up with the sort of like-minded local friends he enjoyed in a larger city.
“The city is making an active effort to combat the ‘brain drain,’ but it seems a lot of people with similar backgrounds don’t have a firm connection to Louisville, and they seek out other cities to satisfy their interests,” he says.
A league of his own
After a 12-hour workday, Aaron Martin, 33, settled into his Highlands apartment and prepared a dinner of quinoa and blueberries. Eating healthy is important to him. In fact, before he accepted a market-research job at Brown-Forman, Martin made sure Louisville had two things: ultimate Frisbee and a health-food chain store like Whole Foods or Wild Oats.
Martin is originally from Evanston, Ill., north of Chicago. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after attending Tufts University in Boston. He worked for a public policy consulting firm in Boston, led high-school student bike tours through Europe, worked and studied in Costa Rica, Bolivia and Mexico, and went back to Evanston for an MBA in marketing from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
When he found out about the job at Brown-Forman, he applied and was invited to Louisville for an interview.
“I flew in Sunday night for my Monday morning interview and stayed at the Brown Hotel,” says Martin. “Nothing was open. Everything seemed dead. I felt like I was in an old western movie waiting for some tumbleweed to blow down the street.”
After the interview, a Brown-Forman employee drove Martin around and showed him that life does, in fact, exist here. Martin accepted the offer. But disappointment followed.
“I went to the sand volleyball courts to join a league,” he says, “and they said I couldn’t join as an individual. I didn’t know anyone in Louisville. How would I come up with a team? Bigger cities will place individuals on teams. Then it dawned on me that the typical way I meet people wasn’t going to work here. I was shocked since I did so well in other cities meeting people. Here was so much harder.”
He posted his business card on a bulletin board at the Ohio Valley Volleyball Center, and was asked to join a team in the Louisville Ultimate Frisbee Association. His team plays on Fridays. He has found another friendly place at Baptist East/Milestone.
“I intentionally didn’t get cable so I have to go to the gym to watch television,” he jokes. “Those are the basic foundations of my life. I moved so much before and always made friends. I wasn’t too worried.”
He wishes the city offered more social activities for individuals, like continuing education language, arts or cooking classes.
However, he says, many of the friends he made have already relocated, including an ex-girlfriend who moved to New York. For the moment, his job at Brown-Forman keeps him busy enough that Louisville’s social scene, lacking though it may be, is bearable.
“Louisville is great if you’re married with kids,” says Martin. “I like the industry I’m in. My interest in my job has kept me here 2½ years, but my life is out of balance. I don’t see myself here long term.”
Know of any good dry cleaners?
Born in Washington, D.C., of Nigerian parents, Chaney Ojinnaka lived in Nigeria for 12 years. He graduated high school in Maryland and attended Howard University. Since then, he has lived in Sendai, Japan, New York and London. He received a master’s degree in public health from Kings College in London.
Then came … Louisville.
“OK, the idea was really petrifying,” Ojinnaka admits. “I’ve always lived in a cosmopolitan environment. I’ve never lived in a small town before.”
Ojinnaka, 27, works as a project manager in health technology policy development at Humana. He admits the company’s recruitment tactics sold him on Louisville. During his interview, he stayed at the Seelbach, visited Churchill Downs and toured the city.
The job opportunity was good enough to convince him to take a shot.
Trying to recapture his urban comfort zone, Ojinnaka rented a 20th-floor city-view apartment on South Fourth Street. “It looks good, but I think I picked a view over amenities,” he says. After living there only two months, he’s already contemplating moving to a new neighborhood.
“It’s strange,” he says. “After work there’s a mass exodus out of the city. There needs to be a strategy to get young people to live downtown. Fourth Street Live is not enough, because once you leave that area there’s nothing to do. Downtown needs more shops and amenities such as dry cleaners and grocery stores. More single young professionals would live downtown if more amenities existed.”
He may not have located a dry cleaner, but Ojinnaka did scope out a favorite bar.
“I love The Pub Louisville on Fourth Street. They serve my favorite, Stella Artois.” He also enjoys Bardstown Road restaurants, and finds ear X-tacy to be a great place to search for his beloved Euro House music.
Ojinnaka has attended YPAL events, but he admits it is challenging to meet people with similar backgrounds. And, no, he hasn’t dated much.
“If I hated my job, it would be a nightmare living here, but I love my job. It drives me daily to do what I do,” he says. “I really like Louisville, but I wish I could find people who share similar experiences and interests. I’m still learning and checking out opportunities. Yes, if I lived in New York, there’s more people and more clubs and bars, but you can spend all your time in clubs and bars and have no friends. It’s all about your quality of life and the quality of people close to you. I certainly think if I find a niche of people I relate to, I can have my mini-New York in Louisville.”
Of course, that’s assuming he stays here long enough to find it.
For me, it’s been one year. I still miss the hustle and bustle of big-city living and crave a real deli. But I do enjoy how you can get virtually anywhere in the city within 15 minutes, and how what you refer to as “winter,” I call “autumn.” If it means pre-programming taxi numbers into my cell phone and making mom buy some corned beef knishes when I visit, so be it.
I have a friend group — made up entirely of transplants (with my husband the sole exception). Will I break through the local barrier? Only time will tell.
Louisville, in return, has also responded to the growing number of transplants. Greater Louisville Inc. and the Leadership Louisville Center are co-sponsoring Welcome Louisville 101, an orientation for city newcomers, on June 28.
“Employers said it was hard selling Louisville to out-of-state candidates, but once they got here they don’t want to leave,” says Mackenzie Hindman, workforce solutions manager for GLI. “We want to speed up their acclimation process.”
A Louisville 101 pilot event in October drew 40 attendees. Mayor Jerry Abramson visited the half-day program, which touched upon Louisville issues, educational and arts offerings and cultural amenities.
“We served Hot Browns and Kentucky Derby Pie and discussed how newcomers can make this their hometown,” Hindman says.
“This was a great opportunity for people to meet. It’s a fun program that communicates Louisville’s personality,” adds Heather Gates, program manager for Leadership Louisville Center.
Is bonding over Hot Browns all it takes?
Gates is optimistic. “You can be whatever you want to be here,” she says. “You can be a big city person or hometown person. Anybody can be accepted here.”
That seems to be true enough. It’s just that it seems to take a lot more work than the spin doctors care to admit.
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