A scientist — originally from Mexico City, now living in Ottawa, Canada — sent me an email last Monday. She had been reading my columns online because her husband was offered a job in Lexington.
She planned to visit for the first time this weekend, but she wanted my answers to these questions: Why should she move to Lexington? What makes life beautiful in Lexington?
Her questions made me stop and think. She is the kind of worldly, educated person that Lexington leaders want to attract to build the city’s economy. The answers to questions like hers will determine Lexington’s future, because people now have more choices about where to live and work.
This is how I replied to her:
I admit to a bias for Lexington because I was born and raised here. But I also have some outside perspective. I went away to college and didn’t return for 22 years. Before moving back, I lived in Bowling Green, Nashville, Knoxville and Atlanta. I liked all of those places, especially Atlanta, except for its horrible traffic. But I miss Atlanta less than I ever expected.
Lexington feels like home to me because it is home. But I know people from all over the world who moved here and say they will never leave. When asked why, they usually talk about friendly people and a pleasant environment.
This is a comfortable place to live. Downtown has mostly retained a human scale, and the surrounding countryside is spectacular: green pastures filled with horses, stone and plank fences and scattered patches of limestone-etched wilderness.
Housing is more affordable here than in most larger cities. Lexington is blessed with a variety of lovely neighborhoods and country homes. The biggest improvement I have seen since moving back in 1998 is the renaissance of urban neighborhoods.
Lexington people are genuinely friendly, and they have become more welcoming as the city has grown more diverse. This has always been a great place to raise a family, but it also is becoming a more interesting city for young professionals.
The economy is stable, thanks to a variety of industries, a large medical sector and a wealth of schools. The University of Kentucky and Transylvania University bring many interesting people here, and they energize the city.
Lexington’s political leadership has been generally capable, and sometimes even inspired. Having a non-partisan mayor and Urban County Council makes a big difference, because it frees city government from the petty party politics that have made a mess of state and national government.
Lexington has a rich history, both positive and negative. Lexingtonians were slow to realize that tradition doesn’t have to be limiting; it can be leveraged to create an attractive brand and a foundation for innovation. But most of us realize it now.
I worried that I would miss Atlanta’s cultural attractions, but I haven’t much. The Lexington arts scene is getting richer and more accessible all the time. Poet Nikky Finney just won the National Book Award, and she is just one of many great writers in town. The visual arts have exploded over the past decade. The high level of musical talent is astonishing.
I have noticed a shift in Lexington attitudes and culture over the past four or five years. Many others have noticed it, too. Nobody can explain it, but the city seems more entrepreneurial, more willing to take risks and more open to new ideas.
A new generation of leaders is emerging, and they are finding creative ways to get things done. Maybe technology and social media are helping to connect and empower them.
Lexingtonians love to get together and have fun. The quirky “Thriller” parade down Main Street each Halloween has become almost as popular as the city’s huge Independence Day celebration. Other big gatherings include Picnic with the Pops, the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event, the Roots & Heritage Festival and the Festival Latino. Keeneland Race Course is the place to be each April and October.
One of my favorite local celebrations is the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. I had just left it when I got your email. Like any city, Lexington has its share of problems, divisions, conflicts and tensions. But I think it is significant that a couple of thousand citizens — including most city officials and community leaders — show up every year, often in terrible weather, to make a symbolic, mile-long march through downtown to celebrate brotherhood.
As I photographed this year’s march, Andrés Cruz was doing the same thing. He publishes La Voz de Kentucky, a weekly bilingual newspaper that covers Central Kentucky’s growing Latino community.
Cruz and I have talked many times about the struggles and frustrations he and other immigrants have faced. But the Costa Rican native now considers this home, and he has played a significant role in making Lexington a better place to live.
Cruz is an example of what I see all over Lexington — and what I think is one of the best things about this place.
Lexington has many advantages of a larger city, but it is still small enough that a committed individual can make a big difference.