In ‘The Hill,’ A Third-Generation Author Explores St. Louis’ Italian Bastion
Everybody has a favorite spot on the Hill. St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood has long been a draw for both suburbanites and tourists, offering a host of restaurants that have been run by the same families for generations — and a church still attended by descendants of the Italian immigrants who built it.
LynnMarie Alexander knows far more than just the highlights. She grew up on the Hill and lives there today, in a home her family has owned since 1907. She has also served as the director/archivist of the Hill Neighborhood Center for five years.
Now she’s sharing the knowledge gleaned over a lifetime of research. Alexander’s new book, “The Hill: St. Louis’s Italian American Neighborhood,” is a handsome, coffee table-ready compilation of the neighborhood’s history and highlights. Published by Reedy Press, it offers archival photos, flyers and personal remembrances in addition to Alexander’s insights.
Alexander acknowledged that the Hill has changed since her childhood. New construction and a steady influx of newer residents have meant the Hill is only about half Italian these days. Gone are the days when she frequently heard Italian spoken in the streets. (As a girl, she explained on St. Louis on the Air, she’d asked her grandfather to teach her how to say “I understand” in Italian, a way of messing with older women gossiping in front of her.)
Still, the neighborhood has remained remarkably true to its roots more than 100 years after the arrival of the first transplants from Italy’s Lombardy region. Alexander said that’s likely due to just how many people who grew up there have stayed put and raised families of their own in the neighborhood.
“I guess we know a good thing when we have it,” she said. “We maintain that family tie. It’s a self-fulfilling strength. We don’t leave because family is here, and if we do leave, we come back, because family is there.”
Originally, those families were divided into two main camps, with the Lombards later joined by Sicilians. Alexander writes that many Sicilians originally settled downtown, but by the 1950s, that community had disintegrated, and families moved to north St. Louis or the Hill.
The two groups didn’t have either a cuisine or a dialect in common, initially. “Mixed marriages” between the two groups were frowned upon, and separate clubs catered to the different sensibilities.
“You can’t get much farther apart in terms of geography, culture, diet, language, than you do from the Lombard region to the Sicilian region,” Alexander said. “You mush these two people together under a newly unified country called ‘Italy,’ and they’re going to have a hard time getting together at first.”
But that changed, she said.
“They saw each other as the ‘other,’ and they didn’t want their son or daughter to get mixed up with the ‘other,’” Alexander said. “But you go to church together, you go to social functions together, eventually you realize they’re just people. The idea of ‘the other’ did really get diluted, especially as people intermarried between cultures.”
Today, she said, “We joke about it, but if I were to say, ‘I won’t do business with that person because they’re Sicilian,’ no.”
In fact, Alexander noted, she worked on her book with Joseph DeGregorio, a Sicilian American, while her family is from Lombardy. He wrote the forward, contributed a personal essay and helped her organize the material. “We managed to do just fine,” she said.
Correction: St. Ambrose on the Hill stopped doing Italian-language Masses in November 2019. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.