Immigrants have proven to be the life-blood of the world’s great cities, infusing them not only with workers but a rich diversity of culture, talent and ways of thinking. For much of its 250 year history St. Louis was very much an immigrant city, each new group bringing with it their recipes, their skills, their music and dance, their stories, their history. And in the sharing of these St. Louis became a richer and deeper place.
The first to arrive in large numbers were the Irish, forced to emigrate by political oppression and famine. By 1850 Irish made up nearly sixteen per cent of St. Louis’ population, by 1860 they were close to 39,000 in number.*
John Mullanphy, who emigrated from County Fermanagh to the U.S. in 1792, and made his way to St. Louis after reaping a fortune in the cotton trade following the War of 1812, was the first to have a major impact on St. Louis. The first millionaire west of the Alleghenies,**he is remembered as the city’s first philanthropist. John Mullanphy knew what poverty looked and felt like and he never forgot it. Among his many endowments
was the first hospital west of the Mississippi River in 1828 – a three-room log cabin, which he invited four Sisters of Charity from the east to staff. The needs for medical care were so great that he replaced it with a three-story brick hospital in 1832 at Third and Spruce Streets downtown. This was the first Catholic hospital in the nation.
As with other immigrant groups – Italian, Bohemian, Polish, Syrian, Russian, German, Czech, Greek, Chinese, Austrian, Scottish – Irish St. Louisans sent money home enabling other family members to join them in the U.S.
This tradition continued well into the 1920s when my husband’s father, Jack Kavanaugh (pictured on the ladder in the photo on the right) came to St. Louis from County Galway as a teenager and started out as a laborer carrying the hod. Jack was welcomed by cousins already in St. Louis.
By 1860 German immigrants numbered close to 60,000, far out-numbering the Irish, and contributing to St. Louis having the highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any city in the U.S., a full sixty per cent of the population.*** The German impact upon St. Louis was considerable – in commerce, in the arts, in city government.
But none left a more dramatic impression than an enterprising young man from Kastel Germany, named Adolphus Busch, who arrived in St. Louis shortly before the Civil War broke out, enlisted in the Union Army, served briefly under Ulysses S. Grant, married Lilly Anheuser (daughter of another German immigrant) and grew a fledgling brewery into a powerhouse (for decades the largest brewery in the world) and a family dynasty that gave the city Cardinals Baseball.
The quotation (borrowed from Caesar) which Lilly Anheuser Busch had engraved on the miniature, cathedral-styled mausoleum in which she buried her husband in Bellefontaine Cemetery, pretty much said it all.
By the time St. Louis played host to the world at The Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 it was itself, to some extent, a microcosm of the world. While only twenty percent of St. Louisans were foreign-born, forty-two per cent of the population had foreign-born parents. Immigrants now came in great numbers from outside the British Isles and Europe – Central America, India and Pacific Islands.****
David Francis, one-time Mayor of St. Louis, Governor of Missouri and U.S. Secretary of the Interior, was then President of the 1904 World’s Fair.
Francis was instrumental in getting the first Olympic Games held in the United States situated in St. Louis concurrent with the fair. A natural diplomat, with a deep interest in foreign relations, Francis helped to organize the world’s first International Peace Conference during the fair.
He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the Russian Revolution.
St. Louis has become home to as many refugees as it has immigrants. Kate Howell of the International Institute, differentiates between the two groups in this way. Immigrants are non-nationals who freely choose to leave their homelands and are “pulled to another country for a variety of reasons, whereas refugees are pushed out of their homes by war or persecution.”
Founded in 1919 to help refugees from the First World War, the International Institute of St. Louis (http://www.iistl.org/) is a non-profit organization that provides services to more than 7,500 immigrants and refugees from seventy-five countries residing in St. Louis City and County.
Services include instruction in English, computer and citizenship, refugee resettlement, economic development through small business opportunities, and a host of health-related, social services. Their website states that they “have had a hand in the resettlement and integration of every new immigrant population in St. Louis for almost ninety-five years.”
The International Institute is currently at located at 3654 South Grand Blvd. in one of the city’s most diverse areas of foreign-born residents and business people, home to people from many areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America. When I was a girl one of my Irish grandmothers lived two blocks from this location.
It was a bustling neighborhood of Europeans, Mediterraneans and first generation Americans where many languages could be heard on a streetcar ride. Ethnic bakeries, butcher shops and markets have been replaced by Middle-Eastern cafes, Persian, Thai, Chinese and Ethiopian restaurants. The smells are still alluring but more exotic.
An STL250 Birthday Cake stands outside of Jay International Food Corp. at 3172 South Grand signifying one of the city’s first international grocery stores and Suchin Prapaisilp, one of the most successful, non-national St. Louis entrepreneurs of the late 2oth century. Named for Suchin’s brother Jay, who later returned to Thailand, Jay International is managed by their sisters who have made St. Louis home.
Suchin emigrated to St. Louis in 1970, a trip made possible by a gift from his mother, a modest savings of several hundred dollars, that offered him the opportunity for a better future in America. He worked three jobs until he had the money to open his own business in a small storefront “with one light bulb” on South Grand, bringing his sisters to the U.S.
Business flourished with the arrival of Vietnamese refugees who attended St. Pius Church up the street, followed by Laotians and Cambodians. He expanded his stock gradually to provide whatever new residents wanted to eat, moving to his much larger, current location (also on South Grand Blvd.), importing foodstuffs eventually from Italy, India, Nigeria, Eritrea, Congo, Israel, the Phillipines, Uzbekistan, Brazil and Mexico.
The list just kept growing, to more than ten thousand items from around the world. Prapaisilp’s various businesses now include The King and I Restaurant on South Grand, Oishi Sushi & Steakhouse in Chesterfield, Global Foods (http://www.globalfoodsmarket.com/) in Kirkwood and the new Global Foods he’s opening in collaboration with Washington University – a 15,000 square foot, international market in The Lofts of Washington University in the Delmar Loop, which will also sell prepared foods. The Delmar Loop is to St. Louis County what South Grand Boulevard is to the city – a rich, multicultural mix of peoples.
A little further south and east of Grand Blvd., Cherokee Street between Gravois and Jefferson Avenue evolved into a vibrant Hispanic, cultural center. Though many more Latino immigrants have settled in the Maryland Heights area of St. Louis County, they come to south city to shop for specialty items like soccer equipment at Minerva Lopez’s Gooolll! and imported foods, fresh meats and sundries at Carlos Dominguez’s Carniceria Latino Americana La Mexican.
Dominguez was one of the early, foreign-born, business people of this Hispanic center, opening his market in 1985. Immigrants from many areas of Central America come to shop where someone speaks their language and understands their needs.
His business is thriving. In 2010 he expanded, opening Don Carlos’ Restaurant alongside the grocery store. The vivid colors of the patio furniture give this once-German enclave an exuberant twist reminiscent of his native Mexico.
This weekend the neighborhood business association is hosting a family-oriented Fiesta on Cherokee. Minerva Lopez, San Diego native and descendant of Spanish and American- Indian parents, says that unlike Cinco De Mayo, drinking will not be a focus of this event. “There will be amusements for the children, toy vendors among the crafts people selling their wares, great music, and lots of delicious food.”
Unlike the 19th century when non-English-speaking, immigrant groups and refugees arrived in such large numbers that they formed enclaves – Chinatown, Dutchtown (Deutsche Town) and La Montagna/The Hill – recent immigrants and refugees have arrived in small enough numbers to be assimilated into many different neighborhoods.
Called “The Hill” by Italian immigrants who built homes and businesses above the huge caves in which many of them were mining clay, this proudly ethnic neighborhood within a generation spawned doctors, religious, politicians, professional athletes, chefs, entrepreneurs who learned to speak English but kept Italian close enough to their hearts that succeeding generations still understood if not spoke it fluently.
The Hill is where you must come to eat at least once while you’re a tourist in St. Louis and love to shop if you live here, for pasta and wine, bread and scrumptious, Italian pastries like Cannoli or Missouri Baking Company’s Amaretto Macaroons.
Most of the businesses on The Hill began as (and many remain) family businesses whether you’re talking about contractors or grocers.
Where else but The Hill would you be handed a business card featuring a wedding photo of the company’s founding parents?
A wedding photo of John and Angela Viviano, who married in November of 1929 is also prominently displayed near the entrance to the store along with another of the couple in their later years.
The memories of immigrant ancestors are precious. In this neighborhood they have a prominent place.
Decades ago a huge area of south St. Louis took on the nickname Dutchtown. August A. Busch, Sr. constructed a five-story windmill approximately half-way between his family’s brewery and their country estate, in the heart of Dutchtown, as a salute to the Old World from which his father had come. Bevo Mill immediately became identifiable with St. Louis’ distinctive German community.
Much of that same area has, in the last twenty years, become home to the largest refugee group in St. Louis, some referring to it as Little Bosnia. Within sight of Bevo Mill the Bosnian community, proud of their own heritage, have erected an exact replica of the Sebilj Fountain that stands in Sarajevo, in their homeland, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The original public fountain was designed in 1753 by Mehmed-pasha-Kukavica.
In this neigborhood as in others it’s fascinating to see how new St. Louisans are adapting to and re-inventing architectural styles and detailing with their own distinctive and beautiful craftsmanship; introducing their old world to St Louis.
At sixty thousand strong, St. Louis contains the largest Bosnian population outside of Sarajevo. The Sabah Bosnian Amer Newspaper is published in this southside neighborhood and distributed nationally. The very first newspaper in St. Louis was published in French and English by Irish immigrant, Joseph Charless.
The day that I took these photos Ahmetkavic Mirsad excitedly showed me a painting that he had made of Sarajevo where he lived for many years. He conveyed with his expressiveness the energy and passion with which so many Bosnians are shaping St. Louis and making it their own.
A case in point is the Bosnian-owned Pizzeria Tivoli at 5861 South Kingshighway whose owners have transformed a formerly non-descript, office storefront into a charming corner restaurant.
In his 2012 study for the St. Louis Mosaic Project, Regional Prosperity Through Immigration and Innovation, St. Louis University Economics Professor, Jack Strauss stated that “St. Louis (had) 126,500 immigrants, comprising 4.5% of the area’s population” (in contrast to) other metro areas in the top twenty of the nation which averaged four to five times that number of foreign-born residents.”
He went on to explain how “the region’s relative scarcity of immigrants largely explains our poor economic growth” and loss of stature among other metro areas, and how critical it is for St. Louis to attract more immigrants to reverse that trend.
It’s the goal of the St. Louis Mosaic Project (http://www.stlmosaicproject.org/) to attract foeign-born entrepreneurs and to welcome newcomers from around the world to increase the St. Louis Metro area’s population, to invigorate the community, create jobs and to expand our cultural diversity.
Member Susanne Evens, a native of Germany, was drawn to St. Louis in 1992 “by its European feel, its beautiful architectural designs, the openness of the landscape with all of the parks, especially Forest Park, the Botanical Garden, the zoo and the Mississippi River.”
“Germans love reading Huckleberry Finn,” she told me. “So I grew grew up reading that and when I first saw the Mississippi the story resurfaced in my mind. Nostalgia!” Susanne opened a German Language Communications company in 1994 which she expanded to 150 languages as AAA Translation (http://www.aaatranslation.com/) in 2000. Her company is located in Chesterfield.
When she first moved to St. Louis Susanne missed the international feel she’d known in Germany. But she took that as an opportunity to get involved with local international groups: Sister Cities, World Trade Center and now Mosaic, which she thinks “offers St. Louis a huge window on being international.”
Dennis Machado’s story is different. He grew up in extreme poverty in Honduras, starting work as a boy after the death of his father, to help his mother who was raising seven other children. As a teenager he literally walked to the U.S. Over time, with lots of hard work, he was able to send for his brothers. Together they built a house for their mother in Honduras. Recently Dennis has realized the dream of opening his own restaurant.
Machado co-owns Smoking Barrels BBQ (http://www.smokingbarrels.net/) at 5641 S. Kingshighway with Fernando Ordonez, where they are both pit masters. The saying on their website reads “Follow our smoke;” something more and more area residents are doing because it is so tempting! And delicioso!
St. Louis is indeed a mosaic. And there’s so much room for it to expand! New ideas, new energies, new ventures, new frontiers are welcome here! Along with the kind of daring and tolerance that rooted us here on the cusp of the west and made of us a gateway.
References: *Historic St. Louis – 250 Years of Exploring New Frontiers by J. Frederick Fausz, PhD, a publication of the University of Missouri St. Louis, HPNbooks; **Robert Campbell in From Mountain Man to Millionaire by William R. Nester, published by the University of Missouri; ***The Civil War in St. Louis – A Guided Tour by William C. Winter;****www.stlouis-mo.gov.
Illustration Credits: Hospital of the Sisters of Charity St. Louis ca 1854 – used with the permission of the Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine; Irish Immigrants – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 1856 – in the public domain.
Photo Credits: Harmony Day – “Harmony Day (5475651018)” by DIAC images – Harmony Day Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons #mediaviewer/File:Harmony_Day_(5475651018).jpg; Adolphus Busch -“Adolphus busch2″ by Unknown Original uploader was DavidOaks at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper. (Original text : Library of Congress). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adolphus_busch2.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Adolphus_busch2.jpg Prapaislip;
Two Photos from the International Festival of Nations, St. Louis, MO – used with the kind permission of The International Institute of St. Louis; Dennis Machado of Smoking Barrels BBQ, St. Louis - provided by Dennis Machado; Susanne Evens – provided by Susanne Evens. Fiesta on Cherokee Poster - provided by Minerva Lopez. All other photos are by Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog.