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Five Cities for a Fresh Start: Louisville

This is Part 2 of Five Cities for a Fresh Start. Each week, we'll feature another American city ready for motivated and creative people looking to move. Click here to read the series' Introduction.

Image from LeveinTeam.com

Last week, we introduced Denver, Colorado, first in our series on the best cities in America to consider moving. This second week, we're stopping in Louisville, Kentucky to watch a horse race, drink some bourbon, and rent a cheap Victorian downtown by the park. 

As we mentioned last week, we're using the same set of 10 questions, plus the first one about our preconceptions. So here's the scoop on Derby City for twenty- and thirty-somethings thinking about moving: 

Louisville, Kentucky

0. Our Preconceptions (for Full Disclosure)
This is Kevin’s hometown. Still, Kevin didn’t just grow up here; after living other places, he came back and lived here on his own as an adult. If you ask him, he’ll say he’s proud of his hometown, but knows its weaknesses as much as its genuine merits.

1. What's its story?
Founded in 1778 at the falls of the Ohio River, the city was named in honor of Louis XVI of France, the same one who was killed in the French Revolution (oops). While Louisville did participate in the slave trade, Kentucky was one of the "brother against brother" states during the Civil War that held slaves but didn't declare secession. After the Civil War, Louisville became known as the home of the world’s biggest horse race—the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, and has been for the past 142 years without a single year missed.

2. How many people are there, and how do they look overall?
Louisville proper has about 600,000 people, and the metro area expands it slightly to 750,000 or so. About three-quarters of people are white, 20% or so are black, and the remaining 5% split between Asian and Hispanic. There are slightly more women than men (10:9). About 45% of households—the biggest chunk—are married couples, with the median age falling around 37. Louisville is popular with young families, but you can be childless or unmarried (or both) and blend in fine.

3. What's the place like? How's the weather?
Louisville is the city on our list with four complete seasons. Spring and fall are crisp and last the full 2-3 months (usually). The winters bring some snow, but it rarely drops below zero. The summers aren't the hottest, but they're pretty humid. If you can handle a bit of anything and just want to avoid extremes, Louisville is a good choice. Just watch out for allergens—there's a high pollen count in the Ohio Valley. 

4. How much does it cost to live there?
Not much at all. Louisville's cost of living index is 92 against a national average of 100. Groceries are cheap, gas is cheap, and not least of all, rent is cheap. If you're looking for a one-bedroom by yourself, you can do it for $800—even in the more popular, centrally-located, younger neighborhoods (such as the Highlands and Old Louisville). Especially if you've got someone to split the rent, you can live quite comfortably for very little. If you're looking to buy, it tends to be a good market, and it's one of the places where young couples starting out can still buy a house. 

5. How educated are the people, and what do they do for work?
About 27% of Louisvillians have a four-year degree or greater, compared to 35% in Denver (one of the best-educated cities in the country). Louisville's industries began with the river port at the Falls of the Ohio, and shipping remains a big one: the WorldPort freight hub for UPS is in Louisville, and the confluence of Interstates 64, 65, and 71 makes it a strategic spot. Louisville is also an important place for the medical industry and research into cancer, transplants, and pharmaceuticals. Lastly, Louisville still has business making stuff: aside from their mass manufacture of bourbon and car parts (for companies like Ford and Toyota), they have a broad palette of proud local businesses that the people tend to support well. The ever-present slogan "Keep Louisville Weird" (which it has in common with a few American cities) definitely helps. 

6. What's there to eat and drink?
Once again, alcohol gets first mention: Kentucky is the world's headquarters for bourbon whiskey, producing something like three-quarters of the world's supply. (There's a common myth that it isn't bourbon unless it's made in Kentucky—that's not true, but it may as well be.) Fortunately, Louisville's food scene isn't limited to liquor: in addition to the bourbon-themed fare, there are gastropubs, craft breweries, and local spots for everything from tacos to barbecue to Indian food. Weirdly, too, Louisville has decent seafood for a landlocked city; the aforementioned UPS port means Louisvillians get first dibs on all the fresh-caught fish in transit. 

7. How are the people?
Pretty laid back. Louisville, situated where it is, is part Midwestern and part Southern. It's definitely farm-and-horse country outside of the metro area, but Louisville itself has a smooth blend of city and country; you lose the twang but keep the tone of hospitality. People are industrious, but they're rarely so rushed as they are in bigger cities. Louisvillians like their seasonal distractions—March Madness was probably named for the way Kentuckians act during college basketball season, and then Louisville parties for the month before the Derby. It keeps going for music lovers: between Abbey Road on the River (the largest annual Beatles festival in the world), Forecastle, and every small event in between, you could hang out at Waterfront Park all summer if you wanted to.

8. What's within driving distance?
If you like road-tripping, Louisville is a great home base. Nearby you have Cincinnati (1.5 hours), Indianapolis (2 hours), Nashville (3 hours), and St. Louis and Chicago (5-6 hours each). Within a day's drive, you could also hit the Eastern Seaboard—D.C. in 9 hours, Philly in 10, NYC in 11—or any number of beaches on the east coast—Florida panhandle in 9 hours, Virginia Beach in 10, NC/SC beaches in 11 hours. A lot of the South is within easy reach, too. In terms of proximity to other cities, Louisville might be one of the best-located in the country. 

9. What do you get here that you don't get anywhere else?
It sounds like a cop-out, but here's the honest answer: a little of everything. Louisville is the "jack of all trades, master of none" city on our list: while it may not score highest marks on any of the criteria (except cost of living), it has good marks in nearly every category: it has some cultural capital, it has some economy and opportunity, it has entertainment, it has access and proximity, it has a low cost of living, and it's reasonably pretty. This is probably the "easiest" city on the list, in the sense that it's so moderate—if you can do better, it's probably because you knowingly prefer something less moderate (for instance, you prefer a denser city despite its higher costs, or you like snow and have no problem driving in it).    

10. What's the final word?
If you're the conquer-the-world sort, Louisville shouldn't be your home base; it's not quite big or busy enough to consider itself a first-class city. In fact, many Louisvillians are content to let others assume it's flyover country because they don't want its moderate pace to change. But that's precisely why some of y'all might love it: its biggest and most unapologetic quality is the balance it offers. It may not be the hottest place in the world, but that's just another way of saying it's cool.

One last thing, back to our full disclosure: Kevin left Louisville because he needed someplace bigger and faster for his twenties. By the same token, though, he says he wouldn't be surprised if he moved back later. Louisville is good for twenty-somethings, but even better for thirty-somethings.  

Coming Up Next Week (Can You Guess?)
Next week, we're on the east coast. Our next city is denser, more expensive, and more... powerful. Get ready for bricks and concrete next week!

Thanks for reading Ampersand, a Code&Quill blog. Next week, we'll be covering City #3 in our series Five Cities for a Fresh StartIf you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here. 

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