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NiNi Harris’ latest book takes readers beneath surface of St. Louis’ layered history

Local historian NiNi Harris is the author of 14 volumes focused on the Gateway City’s history and architecture. She joined Thursday’s talk show to share highlights from her latest published work, “This Used to Be St. Louis.”
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

When NiNi Harris isn’t busy writing, she’s most likely reading – old documents such as city directories, that is.

“It sounds like I have a pretty boring life, doesn’t it?” the local historian said with a laugh on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I read old census records.”

But it’s that very attention to such records that has led Harris to some of the most fascinating stories she tells in her books – 14 of which she’s published thus far.

“Old census records are fascinating,” she explained while discussing her latest volume, “This Used to Be St. Louis” (Reedy Press, 2018), with host Don Marsh. “You find a street, and you find that on this street in 1930, a large number of the people were speaking Yiddish at home. That tells you what that neighborhood is like … that there’s a story there, that there’s a community that was slightly different than the community a few blocks away.”

For Harris, the most difficult part of the process involved in bringing this particular book to fruition was simply deciding which stories and structures to focus on.

“Our city is so remarkable and has such a rich history, and to try to narrow yourself to pick 80 or 90 sites is really, really difficult,” she said. “Each one has a different twist and turn through the layered history of St. Louis.”

St. Louis is distinct in this respect compared to many other places in America, the author added.

“We’re a French town in a Spanish colonial era, we have Indian population here in the colonial era, [and we have] free African-American population and African-Americans living enslaved in the same town – and that’s just during the colonial era,” Harris said.

The many different ethnic groups that have called St. Louis home over the course of its history have left an impact not only on local culture but also the physical places that make up the city. And it’s those places – ranging from buildings such as what is now the Schlafly Tap Room to green spaces like Tower Grove Park – that Harris spotlights in “This Used to Be St. Louis.”

“Each [ethnic group] brings their culture and their story and enriches the entire culture of St. Louis, and in many of the buildings you find multiple stories,” Harris said. “Like the Henry Miller Museum on Martin Luther King, which was [once] Franklin Avenue … There were Orthodox Jews from Russia living there, [and] at one time it was home to a Chinese laundry.

“There was a Greek diner in the [same] building at one time. There are all these different ethnic groups, and today it’s a museum recognizing the fact that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers [was] founded in that building in 1891. Today that organization, that union, has over 700,000 members, and it began over a saloon on Franklin Avenue.”

Harris was quick to credit the records available downtown at City Hall and St. Louis Public Library’s central branch for greatly enhancing her research.

“Many people don’t realize the kinds of information you can find there,” she said. “For instance, I needed to know what mattresses for working-class people were like in 1890. I found out at St. Louis Public Library … They had – in the arts department – all these histories on the evolution of the bed and also on mattresses.”

That finding, in turn, offered her insights on fire hazards in the city at that time: Many mattresses in 1890s St. Louis were made of wood shavings.

Related Event

What: Reading by NiNi Harris
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 10
Where: St. Louis Public Library (Carpenter branch)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.