It has now been about five months since the Starfish family moved south from Chicago, Illinois to Lexington, Kentucky. It was a pretty big move for us, as we had been in Chicago our entire adult lives and had no family or friends in Lexington (no family in Chicago either, I should note).
Over the years, as more and more friends left Chicago each winter (or embarked for the distant Chicago suburbs), Mr. Starfish and I would periodically daydream about leaving the windy city as well. Our main gripes with Chicago were terrible winter weather, high property prices and cost of living, horrible traffic with very long commutes from the suburbs, and a schooling picture that was dizzying in its confusion.
Still, despite all of our complaints about Chicago and hopes for a better future location for our family, it came as a total shock when the time actually came and I received a job offer in Lexington. We had never given any thought to Lexington, and we had your typical urban-Chicago views on Kentucky. I thought I’d share some of the big differences between the two as we’re settling in here.
To set the stage, according to Wikipedia, Chicago is over eight times as large as Lexington (per 2017 population data). Also, while we lived in downtown Chicago, we moved to a suburb of Lexington. Interestingly, our suburb in Lexington is about 4-5 miles from the city center. In Chicago, I’m not aware of any suburb that close in and in fact our townhome in Chicago was 2-3 miles from the city center and we were considered pretty close to the loop.
Probably the biggest thing that struck me during our move was all the extra space in Lexington. I had grown accustomed to living within tighter spaces in Chicago. We frequently made dual use of spaces in our Chicago townhome – our living room was also the girls’ playroom, our laundry was shoved in a hallway, etc. This is no longer the case in Lexington! Honestly, we are still so un-accustomed to all of the space in our new townhome that we regularly shut off an entire guest suite/bedroom and much of our furniture looks ridiculous because we have smaller pieces that were chosen for smaller Chicago rooms; the rooms here are…roomier.
I have appreciated that all of the extra space also allows for easier driving and parking in Lexington. In Chicago, I would get really stressed out driving to the girls’ pediatrician for check-ups; it required navigating our family SUV through tiny city side streets and then parking in the most ridiculous downtown Chicago parking garage that barely allowed me to get the girls out of their car seats because the spaces were so narrow. I’ve never had that problem here in Lexington, and I really like that.
This time of year, I am definitely loving the more mild winter weather here in Lexington. In Chicago, my gripes were not just the cold (although I wasn’t a fan), but the fact that the whole city was just so gray for months and months on end. After a snowfall, temps in Chicago rarely rebounded and that resulted in heaps of snow on sidewalks and streets that quickly turned ugly gray after a few hours as a result of car traffic and street treatments. In my experience, the sun is a stranger to most Chicago winter days and so you’re talking about gray skies, gray slush, and gray snow for a very, very long time. Each winter in Chicago, I would take a vitamin D supplement and I also used a SAD light each morning in the office. Here in Lexington, we are heading in to February and as I’m writing this, I am realizing that I’ve totally forgotten about vitamin D and my SAD light this winter!
We’ve had notable snowfall two times here in Lexington this winter and the girls had a blast playing outside in the snow but wonderfully, the snow completely melted one and three days after the storms. It is also warmer here in Lexington than Chicago. I wore my big puffer parka in Chicago nearly everyday in the winter from January – March (roughly) but here in Lexington I’ve only had to get that bulky thing out three times (mostly to play in the snow with my girls), and I’m sporting a much more stylish wool coat as my everyday coat.
On the negative side, the gray skies are pretty constant here in Lexington and I was hoping for more winter sunshine than we’ve experienced so far. I also do anticipate that the summer weather here will be far more hot and humid so there is a clear trade-off. I’ve always thought that Chicago summers are among the best in the country and I don’t expect that I’ll be swayed from that opinion.
After wide open spaces and weather, I would say the people have been the next most significant change that we’ve encountered. On our first full day in Lexington, I attended an orientation for the girls’ new preschool. All of the parents were gathered in a large open space (again with all the extra space!) and I was absolutely astounded that every single person in there was white. Every.single.person. Although we have loved the girls’ preschool teachers this year, I will admit that the lack of diversity at their school is a big reason that we are looking in to alternatives for next year. I really appreciated that in Chicago, my girls were exposed to many more different types of people than they are in Lexington. Mr. Starfish and I are now having conversations about ensuring diversity in our kids’ lives and that was never a conversation that we had in Chicago.
Also on the people front, I have generally found the people in Lexington to be more friendly than in Chicago. I feel more noticed here that I ever did in Chicago, and on more than one occasion I’ve had an older woman or fellow mom go out of her way to help me in a store or parking lot as I was dealing with wild toddlers and clearly overwhelmed. Our neighbors have also been incredibly welcoming. We are in a similar townhouse set-up that we had in Chicago with a large shared courtyard. In Chicago, we would pass pleasantries with neighbors as we took the girls outside to play, but we otherwise stayed out of each other’s way. In contrast, in Lexington, the older neighborhood kids ring our doorbell, know our girls by name, and bring over leftover birthday cake to share. I think the better weather has a lot to do with this as well – after a big snowstorm, the temps were a pretty mild mid-30s here recently and nearly every child in our complex bounded out of their homes to help build snowmen and share sleds.
I will admit that I have felt a bit uncomfortable with the strong friendliness down here at times. We once took the girls to an indoor play area and an older grandfather took an interest in our family. I enjoyed talking to him quite a bit until he started pushing his church on me pretty hard. The people down here do seem to take their faith and their church much more seriously than in Chicago. As I’ve blogged in a prior post, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable when I’m faced with the, “Are they twins?” question as not all religions necessarily agree with the science and unique arrangements that led to my girls’ birth.
Being a college town, Lexington is a pocket of blue in a decidedly red state. A lot of Chicago people gave me side-eye when I announced that we were moving to Kentucky, without realizing that Lexington is more liberal than overall Kentucky. Still, I’ve noticed some differences with regard to policy. I never thought of Chicago as particularly “green” until we moved down here. I am regularly faced with license plates emblazoned with the words “Friends of Coal” when I’m stuck in traffic down here. Mr. Starfish and I also became so accustomed to the Chicago plastic bag tax that we nearly always use reusable bags. They don’t have such bag taxes down here and I still am always shocked when I go to the grocery store and I see so much plastic flying around at the check-out lines. Still, on the whole, I would characterize the political climate as slightly more conservative than Chicago but not what you’d likely expect.
Finally, I’ve found people here to be more polite and careful with their words than people in Chicago. Perhaps the best example of this was the first time I came across a negative individual in my new office. Speaking to a coworker about this individual, she scrunched her nose up and said quietly, “Yes, we all find Donna to be a little bit….unpleasant.” I can tell you without hesitation that my Chicago coworkers had much stronger words to describe their office Donna than “unpleasant!” I’ve had to dial back some of my language in Kentucky and it’s been an interesting exercise in reflection. I used to curse at my old job constantly and I no longer do so.
Lexington has several elements of small-town charm. The heart of the town is the university, and there are bumper stickers for the school on every other car on the road. I’ve started watching more college sporting events than I did in Chicago, and it’s been fun to get in the spirit of their winning teams. People here very often will start a conversation with, “Did you watch the game last night?” or “Are you going to watch the game tonight?” There is generally a lot of town pride here; if it’s not university athletics, it’s the Keeneland horse race track or the bourbon trail. It’s easy to get swept up in their pride and I’m very eager to show our family and friends around our new town as they come out to visit us.
Traffic here is definitely better than Chicago, but it’s also not as good as I’d hoped. We live about 4-5 miles from my office and there is always a traffic build-up somewhere along my route, both coming and going from the office. The worst day was definitely Halloween, when it took me about 45 minutes to get home as everyone left their offices at the exact same time. Still, with a commute that is usually 15-25 minutes, it is much shorter and less frustrating than a commute would be out to the Chicago suburbs. That said, I will give credit to Chicago for their train systems, which definitely make those suburban commutes more bearable. There is nothing like that here in Lexington.
Probably the biggest thing that I miss about Chicago are the airports. Mr. Starfish and I both travel for work from time-to-time and on any given week, one of us is usually traveling. When we were in Chicago, there were so many nonstop flights to so many cities and countries that it was easy to travel. While Lexington has an airport, it is very small and my favorite airline, Southwest, does not service the airport. We sometimes will drive to Cincinnati or Louisville for a nonstop flight option or a better flight time, but that is definitely a nuisance.
Lexington is much more quiet than Chicago. During our first week, Mr. Starfish was up early one morning and as he ate his cereal, he subconsciously observed a sound and attributed it to a siren (which we heard constantly in Chicago). As he continued to hear the sound, he recognized that it was not a siren but it was a cricket chirping. A cricket. In Chicago, I’m not sure he would have heard a cricket over the sirens and street noise that were a constant in our area!
A final large difference has been a lower cost of living. We pay less here for housing, children’s activities, preschool, and childcare. But food and home-cleaning services costs have been a wash, and we haven’t saved as much on taxes as we had expected.
Overall, we’ve had a nice adjustment to Lexington. I feel that this is a pretty good town to raise a family, in particular the emphasis on children and hometown connection and the outdoors. That said, no city is perfect and there are things about Lexington that are definitely not my favorite. Also, I miss Chicago for all of the great friends and coworkers that remain there, and that city will always have a special place in my heart because of all the great times I had exploring the windy city in my child-free 20s and early 30s. There’s also a grit and great sense of humor among Chicagoans that I really miss (so many of my Chicago friends made me laugh out loud with their descriptions of the terrible weather they experienced there recently!) Still, Chicago never felt like the right place for me and Mr. Starfish to put down our permanent family roots. While I’m not yet sure if Lexington will fit that bill for us either, we are finding it to be a pretty decent stop for our family in this road of life…