In St. Louis, Finding Family Connections on The Hill

Vitale’s bakery in St. Louis makes 25,000 pizza “shells” a week, turning out the flash-baked crusts on a production line in a sturdy brick building on Marconi Avenue. Many go to local restaurants. But as I toured Vitale’s recently, a guy snuck in the side door, his granddaughter in tow, picked up a sack of shells and ducked out. No big deal: He’s a friend of the family. It all makes sense in this flag-flying Italian neighborhood, simply called The Hill, an ethnic enclave seemingly impervious to change, just a few miles from the Arch.

Traveling the American Road – On The Hill in St. Louis


At the bakery, I met three generations of the family that’s been working here since 1977. Mike Vitale showed me around, as his dad, brother, nephew and another couple employees who aren’t related to him pulled dough out of an enormous mixer, to weigh out, roll and process hamburger buns for baking. They were to be sold that weekend, while the Cardinals were playing three home games against their rivals, the Cubs, thereby cranking up the city’s consumption of burgers. It’s surprisingly artisanal food, hand-made if produced in huge quantities. The farthest the finished rolls will travel is across the Mississippi to Illinois.

Inside the bakery, the smell of yeast hangs heavy. Despite the ovens, it’s not particularly hot but maybe it just feels that way because it’s been so sweltering in St. Louis this summer. There are Cardinals stickers and family photos on various machinery, and one employee was wearing a t-shirt silk-screened with the names of other local businesses that play together on a bocce league.

More proof of the neighborhood’s continued ethnic tilt is Il Pensiero, a bilingual newspaper published twice a month and distributed on The Hill. The publishers surname? Lombardo, a nod to the northern Italian region from which many of the neighborhood’s immigrants came. In front of St. Ambrose, the Romanesque church on Wilson Avenue, a statue memorializes the poverty and hope of the Italians washing up on American shores, even here, more than a thousand miles from the Atlantic.

My cousins have moved into the neighborhood, too, with a deli, Eovaldi’s, named for our great-grandmother. I don’t mention it simply because they’re family: the boys had the best deli in the city in 2010 according to local independent paper The Riverfront Times, which writes:

When your deli is located inside the Oldani Brothers Salami factory, chances are you make a mean Italian sandwich. Sure enough, Eovaldi’s nook-like location on the Hill can pile on the salty cured meats with the best of them–favorites likes Genoa salami, mortadella and coppa are available, as well as the more pedestrian deli meats.

The neighborhood got a two-page spread recently in Feast magazine, a local foodie read, with one local writing in to say “I think no place in St. Louis represents something as unique as The Hill.” Pictured with the story are Rigazzi’s, Milo’s, Missouri Bakery, Il Viviano and Zia’s. Missing is a shot of Volpi’s, a salami house my mother is pretty much always raving about.

New development is breaking the traditional bounds of The Hill. Restaurants are moving beyond the red sauce mold, including Modesto, a tapas spot, that’s landed on St. Louis magazine’s “A-List” of the best places in town. The magazine also gave a nod to Five Bistro, a block west of Rigazzi’s, which won “Best Burger in St. Louis.” Real estate, too, is booming, the surest sign that the neighborhood is still surging. My aunt, mother to my cousins at Eovaldi’s, is downright horrified with the rents people are charging.

Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Here or there? A a price comparison of the best cities to visit this May

price comparisonPlanning a quick weekend away or a summer vacation? Wouldn’t you like to know where you’ll get the best value for your dollar? Sure, the exchange rate fluctuates, but we’ve tracked some of May’s best cities via a Universal Currency Converter and a little help from our friends over at Frommers.

According to Frommers, your best bets for May include:

  • Saint-Pierre, Martinique, where the exchange is $1 = €.67 and the average three-star hotel for two is $178 per night.
  • Apia, Samoa, where the exchange is $1 = 2.26 Samoan Tala and the average three-star hotel for two is $79- $176 per night.
  • Stockholm, Sweden, where the exchange is $1 = 6.01 Swedish Krona and the average three-star hotel for two is $199 – $232 per night.
  • Bad Ischl, Austria, where the exchange is $1 = €.67 and the average three-star hotel for two is $74.
  • Jeonju, South Korea, where the exchange is $1 = 1,072 South Korean Won and the average three-star hotel for two is $74 – $111.
  • Montpelier, Vermont, where the the average three-star hotel for two is $90 – $135.
  • St. Louis, Missouri, where the average three-star hotel for two is $73 – $108.
  • Wasagaming, Manitoba where the exchange is $1 = C95¢ and the average three-star hotel for two is $146.

Have cities you’d like to compare? Use the Universal Currency Converter or send us a note!

[Flickr via Tax_Rebate]

*Breaking* St. Louis airport damaged and closed by tornado

The historic Lambert Field in St. Louis was damaged by an apparent tornado last night, wreaking havoc on the main terminal and disrupting operations. According to the Huffington Post, “The storm lifted the roof off Concourse C and sent plate glass flying everywhere. Four people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries after glass shattered as the storm hit.”

All inbound flights were diverted, while operations ground to a halt internally. As of this morning, no flights are operating in or out of the airport.

If you happen to be flying through Lambert Field this weekend, be sure to check your schedule for any cancellations. American Airlines Southwest Airlines flies the majority of routes out of Lambert, so that carrier may see the largest disruptions. American currently has a travel waiver available on their site here while Southwest has one here.

Luckily nobody was fatally injured in the storm. Lambert Field, however, will remain indefinitely closed until repairs can be made.

*update, we just received this youtube video from inside of STL airport during the action. Scary stuff!*

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Skyscraper as theme park: Architect re-imagines thrill rides on a vertical scale

Can you imagine a theme park in the middle of Manhattan? Finding the capital to acquire the land and raise the buildings on it to create the necessary open space would be nearly impossible.

But what if that theme park could be built vertically, as a theme park skyscraper?

Skyscraper theme parkThat’s the idea behind architect Ju-Hyun Kim’s vertical theme park prototypes. Kim says in order to be eco-friendly and save the world from more sprawl, the theme parks of tomorrow need to be built in the middle of cities:

Instead of sprawling parks with giant footprints, stack the park into a skyscraper. The altitude will only add to the speed and excitement of rides, and the view of the surrounding dense urban environment will be incredible. There’ll be so much more to see from the top of the carousel and roller coaster on the perimeter. Best of all, it will be easily reached by public transportation, and the environmental impact will be minimal. Now is the time to build the joyful destination for families’ perfect day out at the center of cities.

Kim’s vertical theme park would be broken into five sections:

  • Vertigo World, which would include a carousel and observation deck at the top of the theme park skyscraper
  • Fast Land, including a flume ride and a rollercoaster
  • 360 World, with a Ferris Wheel and sky promenade
  • Abyss City, a bungee jumping platform
  • Elsewhere Universe, a geodesic dome with a gravity-free zone

Though very different from Kim’s vision, theme-park pioneer Walt Disney also considered building a vertical theme park in a city’s downtown. Fifty years ago, Disney was planning a River Front Square on the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis. The five-story indoor attraction’s plans are said to have included a walk-through pirate ship, audio-animatronic exhibits and a haunted house.

But the St. Louis plans for a metropolitan Disney theme park were scrapped, and the second Disney theme park — the Magic Kingdom — was built outdoors, horizontally, on part of a sprawling 40-square-mile swampy area now known as Walt Disney World.

You can see all the prototypes from Kim’s vertical theme park proposal at ArchDaily.