MORE THAN BRICKS AND MORTAR

By Shawn Clubb
South City Journal
April 26, 2006

NiNi Harris heard her grandmother talk about growing up in Soulard. Eleanore Berra-Marfisi was instilled with a sense of where she came from on The Hill. Bob Corbett wanted a way to connect with people in Dogtown when he moved back there.

All three became historians for South City neighborhoods and learned why people find the rich pasts of these places so charming. But all three come to their interests in neighborhood history from different perspectives.

Genesis of a historian

Harris now lives four miles from where her grandmother grew up. She lives on the border of the Dutchtown and Carondelet neighborhoods in the shadow of St. Cecilia Catholic Church. Her great uncle, Charlie, built her house in 1924 and a family member has lived in it ever since then. Her father painted murals on the plaster walls. The hardwood floor squeaks as she walks across it

"Many of the people coming back here are looking for this," said Harris of the character of old homes built on rectangular lots on rectangular blocks on an urban city's street grid.

While some people have moved to city neighborhoods from the suburbs, Harris has lived here all her life. She would walk to Soulard Market with her grandmother, who would talk about what St. Louis was like when she grew up in the late 1800s.

Harris, who doesn't focus strictly on her own neighborhood's history, said the city kept changing until the 1950s, when many people moved to the suburbs. She said the city then stopped changing and became a time capsule of how people used to live.

"People stayed here. They hung their wash. They kept planting their gardens. They walked to the store. They walked to church. They walked to school," she said. "It's a different way of life that connects you to the past."

Berra-Marfisi's mother was German and immigrated here from Switzerland. Her father was an Italian, who she said came here to seek his future.

"My father had a great deal of pride. They instilled this pride in us of always know who you are who you are and what you are about," she said. "On The Hill, the people know who they are and if you don't know, they'll tell you."

The Italians on The Hill immigrated here, overcame the language barrier and raised large families on little money, Berra-Marfisi said. They did it because they had a strong work ethic, she said.

Corbett had done historical research in Haiti before moving back to Dogtown in 1993.

"I didn't know people very well and I needed some way to get back into it, so I decided to do a history of Dogtown," he said.

A friend, Maureen Brady, directed Corbett to Lou Schmidt, who had done research on Dogtown history. Corbett met Schmidt six days before Schmidt moved away. He left Corbett his notes and scrapbooks.

Corbett said neighborhoods are created by people wanting to identify themselves with a community. However, he said some are created by the ties people have to each other.

In Dogtown and on The Hill, Corbett said, people know you and know your parents. He said over generations families intermarried and now several families are related to each other.

"We came together and identified ourselves as Dogtown," he said.

The history of St. James the Greater Catholic Church has also shaped Dogtown's identity.

Corbett said it is a myth that Dogtown is an Irish neighborhood. He said the neighborhood carries the "spirit of Irish Catholicism," because a succession of priests at the church were ordained in Ireland and sent as missionaries to St. Louis, where they were able to stamp an identity on Dogtown.

Adopting the past

However, you don't have to be from a place to call it home. Each of these people said newcomers have moved in and they have a tendency to adopt a neighborhood and learn its history.

"They adopt the families that built the houses they were renovating as their heritage," Harris said. "They found an identity by living in and restoring an old neighborhood."

Berra-Marfisi said these people come from places that don't have a sense of community and they know about the sense of family and the friendliness of The Hill.

"It's important to remember we are not just fragmentary pieces of this melting pot. We melt," she said. "I think that's what they do. They just come together with us."

Corbett said these newcomers become part of the church communities and school communities and part of the commercial establishments. He said they find neighborhood associations and learn about the nostalgia and history of the neighborhood.

He said the newcomers get a sense of "this is neater than where I came from."

Promoting nostalgia

Harris's interest in St. Louis history fueled the research for several books on various parts of the city and the architecture of St. Louis. She also gives walking tours on which she tells people about the history of the area.

She gives weekday tours for Oasis and Saturday tours for Maryville University. Information on those tours can be found by calling Oasis at (314) 539-4555 and Maryville University at (314) 529-9488.

Berra-Marfisi, formerly a teacher and principal at St. Mary's High School, researched The Hill and did interviews and has written books on The Hill, including "I Remember Nonna" and "The Hill: Its History Its Recipes."

For her latest book about nicknames called "Soprannome," she listened as a group of men from The Hill reminisced about the nicknames of people they knew. The book can be found at St. Ambrose Catholic Church, 5130 Wilson Ave.

Corbett has written extensively on Dogtown history on his web page, www.corbettland.com. He also maintains an e-mail list on Dogtown and Dogtown history. People can sign up for the list by e-mailing him at corbetre@webster.edu.

He is also a founding member of the Dogtown Historical Society. It meets at 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month in the rectory meeting room at St. James the Greater Church, 6401 Wade Ave.

Harris said it's hard not to be struck by the beauty and character of these neighborhoods and wonder about their past.

"The history is physically with us," she said. "It's in the buildings. It's in the fixtures. It's in the street layouts."


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