When St. Louis hosted the 1904 Olympics and World’s Fair just more than a century ago, people from all corners of the earth descended on the city. St. Louis had long been welcoming French, Spanish, African and German immigrants; and in the seven-month period of the World’s Fair, more than 20 million people visited what was being called the “Future Great City of the World.”
Today, St. Louis remains a melting pot of diverse cultures. In recent years, the city has seen surges in immigrants from Bosnia, Africa, Asia and Latin America. As St. Louis celebrates its historic anniversary, many organizations are recognizing the rich multicultural heritage that the city has to offer.
Local Germans and Germanophiles in St. Louis have a strong connection to the country through St. Louis-Stuttgart Sister Cities (SLSSC). President Susanne Evens says former St. Louis City mayor Raymond Tucker helped form the relationship in 1960, as St. Louis’ first sister city. “After World War II, he realized we needed to have ties to Stuttgart,” she says. “It started back then as a cultural organization.”
Though St. Louis’ German population has seen a considerate decline (from 28 percent in the early 1900s, down to about 10 percent today), Evens says its culture is sill alive and thriving. There are 16 German organizations in town, hosting between four and six events each month, from choir performances to Oktoberfest. SLSSC has assisted in bringing two German companies to St. Louis, and supports student exchanges through local colleges and high schools. This year, in honor of the city’s birthday celebration, SLSSC is giving an area high school student a $2,500 scholarship to study abroad in Stuttgart. Members of the organization come from all walks of life—some are German or of German descent, while others traveled to Germany and loved it, or simply want to learn more about the country.
For St. Louisans from across the pond, The British Connection provides a little taste of home. British women, women with British roots going back three generations, or any woman married to a British man, are welcome to join the organization. Originally a branch of the Transatlantic Brides and Parents Organization, the group broke free of the national organization in 1994. Tara Dix, former president and current member of the club, says many of the members are GI brides who came to America after WWII, though more and more members are young women who moved to the United States because of their husbands’ jobs. Dix says new transplants sometimes depend on other members of the group for help navigating American culture.
“Some of the foods have different names here,” Dix says. “So if you’re looking for a certain item for a recipe and you can’t find it…they answered silly questions for me [like that].”
Members of the organization attend as few or as many events as they like. The club officially meets once a month, in addition to lunches, evening discussions, happy hours and morning coffees. Husbands are invited to some events, like the May banquet, which, in recent years, has been a potluck garden party.
“Everybody brings food, usually traditional English desserts like trifle, which you know will be enjoyed by fellow members,” Dix laughs. “The first time I made trifle here for my American friends, people were suspicious. If you make a trifle and take it to The British Connection, you know the ladies will like it.”
Connie Mitchell joined the group after meeting Dix. Mitchell’s husband is British, and she says it was nice for him to meet other British husbands through the group. Mitchell has since moved away from St. Louis, but still keeps in touch with the members she met through the club. “The ladies were so welcoming and sweet,” she says. “When I got pregnant with my second son, the British Connection ladies had a baby shower for me. Since my mother-in-law obviously was not in the area, it was like having a whole bunch of English nannies for my baby.”
While clubs like The British Connection help expats find comfort far from home, other organizations, like the Alliance Francaise, offer a chance for St. Louisans to explore languages and cultures from across the world. Executive director Isabelle Heidbreder says the non-profit organization is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year as a school. Students of all ages and abilities are welcome—right now, Heidbreder says, students range in age from 3 years old to their late 80s. Most of the teachers are French natives, and teach French culture in addition to the language. Members can check out items from the Alliance’s library, participate in monthly reading circles and cinema club meetings or attend social functions, like poetry readings and wine tastings.
Though most St. Louisans are aware that Frenchman Pierre Laclede founded the city, many don’t realize the cultural similarities that still exist today, Heidbreder says. St. Louis City Hall was copied from the city hall in Paris, and street names like Chouteau and Carondelet also are French. But the similarities don’t stop there.
“I went to a party when I first moved to St. Louis,” Heidbreder says. “An older gentleman approached me and said, You’ve arrived in the Paris of the Midwest. I quickly left and thought, These are strange people, but now I’ve been here for 16 years and couldn’t agree more. The cultural offerings in St. Louis are incredible.”