St. Louis hosted for 30 years Rita Levi Montalcini, who worked here at the science that gave her the Nobel Prize. But this is not the only Italian trace in the city of the Show Me State. When you get to Marconi Avenue, in The Hill, St. Louis' Little Italy, you start to understand that not every Italian neighbourhood in America has disappeared or reduced to just a few blocks. The Hill is pretty big, very Italian, clean and with a lot of Italian flags. Being here is a very good sensation, for We the Italians who love the Italian Americans and admire their passion for Italy. Lynn Marie Alexander is one of them
Lynn Marie, what's the story of the Italian emigration to St. Louis?
When they came over in the late 1890s, the Italian immigrants came here for work, because at that time there was a situation of instability in Italy, especially in the north. Here they worked particularly in clay mines, some also in coal mines, but the majority in clay mines because at that time there were here 6 different foundries of brick making. They wanted to make a decent living here; some men brought their family from Italy, others met the girl of their dreams here.
Most of the Italian settlers came here from the Italian region Lombardy, from the town of Cuggiono and its immediate surroundings in particular, and established here in The Hill neighbourhood.
The immigrants from southern Italy had a little different history, at first: they chose to live in downtown St. Louis and they chose to work in restaurants. Downtown St.Louis is about 7 miles from The Hill: it's not that far, but in those days it seemed quite far because they travelled on horseback! So, originally there were 2 Little Italies: The Hill, where settled Italians from the north of Italy, and downtown St. Louis, where lived Italians from the south. But a few years before World War I, due to population pressure, the southerners immigrants moved to The Hill as well, and the Lombardians and the Sicilians started living together: that's when The Hill became the official Little Italy in St. Louis, and it has been for a century!
Since there wasn't any public transportation, no trains or busses to this area, and it was quite far from the river, the Italians became a self supporting community. When the Sicilians decided to move in The Hill for a while there were almost two of everything, since northerners and southerners spoke different dialects: for example there were two reception halls, one across the street from the other. But there was only one Church: there was at least one thing they were able to attend together!
You are the Director of The Hill Neighbourhood Center. Please tell us more about it
The Hill 2000, formed in the 70's, and The Hill Business Association are two different associations with two different boards with two different functions managed by volunteers with two different functions: one for the health of the community, the other for the health of the businesses. Together, they created The Hill Neighbourhood Center, which they pay jointly.
The Hill 2000 is all about the neighbourhood: for instance, if there's a landlord, but he's not keeping his property nicely, the organization can pressure him to do better to maintain a certain decorum and safety in the community. The majority of our Businesses in The Hill are restaurants, but we also have grocery stores: the oldest one celebrated the 45th anniversary in business. The community also tries to provide every possible service that could be needed by its citizens.
We do a variety of things: we do community outreach; we promote The Hill towards local and national media; we have a place where tourists can rest and cool off when they are browsing through the Hill; we also have now an archive with many many stories and lots of old records and pictures. There are also some inhabitants of The Hill that are native speakers, and they organize Italian Language classes.
Many of our citizens belong to families that have been living on the Hill for generations. I for example am a 4th generation Italian and I still live in my great grandma house: this is a very common thing here and it contributes to increase the continuity of the community, with young people that may know the grandfather or even the great grandfather of their friends and hear directly from them the histories of their families!
The Hill 2000 organizes "La Festa". How many people do attend, and what happens during this event?
"La Festa", the community party, takes place in May and about 5,000 people attend every year to the event, to experience Italian craftwork, drawings and food. We are an extremely active community: we also have the Columbus Day Parade in the park of the neighbourhood.
We Also have a Christmas event: at Christmas time about a couple of dozens of shopkeepers put their activities in the shop windows so people can go around and look at the various activities they do. We also organize a bicycle race on The Hill: professional bicycle racers have been coming here to race on The Hill for almost 20 years and they like it because it is very challenging because of the tight city corners.
You also have an Italian newspaper, "Il Pensiero". Is it difficult to maintain a publication, and how do you distribute it?
There are two people working in the newspaper, both of them speaking fluent Italian: some parts are written in English, but there is Italian than English in it.
It is distributed by the same guy who prints it: he writes the stories, he edits it, he prints it and then he takes around the bundle of newspapers to the restaurants or wherever there is the possibility of leaving free magazines. Il Pensiero is issued every other week and doesn't costs you anything, you pick it up and it's for free!
Are there people, or facts that have had or still have a particular importance in describing Italy in St. Louis and in Missouri?
You cannot divorce the community from our two priests of the last 50 years: Monsignor Polizzi and Monsignor Bommarito.
When the city of St. Louis wanted to build the new interstate highway directly through The Hill Community, Monsignor Polizzi went to the State Capital with busses full of supporters with him to try to save the houses of The Hill. In the end he obtained the rerouting of the highway, even if we still lost 109 houses: but it could have been worse if it wasn't for Monsignor Polizzi. They also built a bridge across the highway so the inhabitants could reach both their work locations and the Church by walk!
It was almost stereotypical the way he seemed to be everywhere, and the publications about him are in every category in our archives since his personality went beyond the simple role of a priest.
The current priest is Monsignor Bommarito, which is in his early sixties, and works constantly in a very discreet way to keep the community united.
Other personalities worthy of mention are two very famous baseball players, Yogi Berra (who died last year) and Joe Garagiola: they grew up in The Hill as close friends, living across the street from each other.
How about the actual Italian presence in Saint Louis, nowadays? Are there many Italians?
Basically, nowadays if Italians come here and spend some time in St. Louis is because they found here an extended part of their families. However, there are quite many Italian Americans from the Hill who go back to their hometown in Italy. They don't stay there, they come back to St. Louis, but this way they keep the connection alive between America and Italy, which is really good!
How is Made in Italy in St. Louis?
It's hard to believe but women dresses, men suits, bags and fashion, accessories typical of the Made in Italy, are not available in The Hill. If some Italians would decide to come and start these kind of businesses here, they will be very welcomed! The mere fact that a product has Italian origins makes increase its value, here as in the rest of the world.
At least we have some examples of million dollars factories that came out of The Hill: the first one is called Volpi and they do prosciuttos and general salamis in Italian style; the second one is called Imo's Pizza, and there's also Fazio's Bakery, opened about 100 years ago!
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