I Picked Pittsburgh: Karen Lillis' Escape from New York

A geographic compromise ended in an engagement, a commitment to a new life west of the Alleghenies -- and a book.

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Writer and poet Karen Lillis and her boyfriend, Tom Hendrickson, were living in New York City, but they were becoming rattled by the high cost of living. "We were sort of running out of money," Karen said.

In 2005, Tom raised the question of skipping town. Karen, who's originally from Virginia, was reluctant at first. She had been in New York City for 12 years, "my whole adult life, until then."

But Karen prides herself on being open-minded, and said, "OK. But where do we look?" Tom was comfortable with the Midwest but she preferred the East Coast.

They researched likely cities -- Philadelphia, Baltimore, a couple of places in Ohio and Chicago, looking for a locale that met both their needs. Finally it was the City of Bridges that bridged their differences and they ended up on the East Coast's back porch.

"Pittsburgh was the obvious compromise -- and it was the only place we physically visited," she recalled. It was August 2005 when they rented a car and drove to see what exactly the middle ground looked like.

"One of my first impressions was it was so green. Pittsburgh was just off my radar. If I thought anything about it, I thought it was going to be more like Minneapolis, very concrete, dystopian post-industrial shut-down landscape." Instead she was impressed with its lush beauty. She had also gotten wind of Pittsburgh's verdant art scene, but that is not what she experienced first.

They picked a cheap motel from a guidebook, but it turned out to be "this crazy, redneck, sex motel out near the Robinson Town Centre," she recalled, laughing. "It was $30 a night and they were in the process of renovating rooms to have heart-shaped Jacuzzis, and there were mirrors everywhere."

Happily, their first night did not determine her first impression of the city, even though she does remember the woman in the office saying, "You want to know the best thing about Downtown Pittsburgh? The suburbs."

They looked at Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and the South Side. "I do remember reading about how vibrant South Side was. When we were there it was so quiet, I thought, 'Is that it?' There was nobody there." And yet they soldiered on because she knew there had to be more than meets the eye.

When we moved to Pittsburgh in December 2005, "it was still kind of on faith," Karen recalled. And love -- because they ended up getting engaged that weekend at the motel. Perhaps it was the magic of the three rivers mixed with those tacky heart-shaped beds. Whatever alchemy was in play, the couple decided Pittsburgh was the place to stay.

"Making this commitment to my boyfriend and looking forward to the future, I realized I had been living so badly in New York, financially speaking," she admitted. "I mean, it took me 10 years to work up to making $23,000 there."

They both got temp jobs right away. A year and a half after moving, Tom had a permanent staff job at the University of Pittsburgh, but it took Karen only eight months to get a permanent staff job in Pitt's Cultural Studies Department. (She has gone on to enroll in the library science program at Pitt, where she is pursing a master's degree.)

So the decision to move here was not strictly geographic. "We compared salary ranges for general staff jobs at universities in all the cities we researched with the cost of living. Pittsburgh definitely had the best ratio of rent to income," she observed. They also noticed that there was a temp agency at Pitt, which really appealed to them, since they moved here with no jobs and not knowing a soul.

Squirrel Hill is where they ended up renting. "We are happy with Squirrel Hill for all the amenities like shopping and buses to work," she said. "We are walking or bus people."

Of course, there was a moment when they first got here and she wanted to go to a gallery opening. Karen looked into the bus routes, but really didn't see any way that she would feel safe coming home late.

"I didn't go. At that moment, I thought, 'Oh, wow, you're really not in New York City anymore.' I wondered if I could feel urban and self-sufficient here," she confessed.

Since then she's become creative about crosstown adventures. "I am now pretty bold about asking people for rides back to the East End -- and people are pretty nice about it!"

Currently, the couple are in the process of buying a house near Polish Hill; they like what is happening there and in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. "We're looking forward to moving to that side of town for a better social life."

Basically, Pittsburgh has been steadily growing on Karen. "I moved here knowing very little about the place and I keep learning more things," she said. "I love that there are still stones to turn over here." In New York, "I was starting to notice that there was no underground left. It seemed that everything immediately got advertised in Time Out NY."

Karen's third book, the novel "The Second Elizabeth," was published here by Six Gallery Press earlier this year. She was also nominated for a Golden Quill Award in 2007 for an article she wrote on all the small presses in Pittsburgh. In addition to that, she created the Small Press Pittsburgh Web site at www.smallpresspittsburgh.wikispaces.com.

She does see room to add more to the cultural scene and would love to see Pittsburgh receive "a higher literary profile. I find there to be a ton of great writers here," she said, "so I really want to create some kind of galvanizing entity to give the writers here something to be proud of together."

Visit Karen Lillis' www.myspace.com/eyescorpion or e-mail her. Patricia Sheridan is a Post-Gazette staff writer ( psheridan@post-gazette.com , 412-263-2613). Contact Portfolio at 412-263-1915 or page2@post-gazette.com .


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