(Un)planned urban renewal of Bosnian immigrants in St.Louis—Bevo Area/South City

Posted on April 5, 2012

The area around the Bevo Mill in the South City of St. Louis is a part of the city that has been changed and ›renewed‹ in the last two decades by immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. The first immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina came in 1993.  The International Organization for Migration (IOM) organized and managed the immigration of 13 families (Matsuo 2004). An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people from Bosnia and Herzegovina now live in and around St. Louis. Some of them came directly from Bosnia and Herzegovina; others arrived from Germany in the late 1990s when they had to leave because their ›Duldungsvisa‹1 had expired. Most of them came from other parts of the United States because they expected better opportunities for a new beginning here, and they indeed found better conditions. How did these ›better conditions‹ come about? In the early 1990s, the area around Bevo Mill was abandoned and left to deteriorate. The majority of building were vacant and had boarded-up ground floors. According to the current residents of South City, the area was characterized by low rents and poor or non-existent infrastructure. At first, Bosnian migrants rented the houses and stores; later on they started buying, restoring and selling them. Because they were given the opportunity to obtain loans from the local bank without the usual required bank history, new possibilities opened up that allowed this development to occur. The trust of the mayor made this possible. Today, you can safely walk the streets where small cafes, restaurants and supermarkets are very popular. These changes were not backed up by local city planners but were initiated by the people themselves as bottom-up renewal. Beside gastronomy services, a Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, a newspaper editorial office of a Bosnian diaspora newspaper and lawyers are also located in the Bevo Area. The existence of these services demonstrates their transnational identity, which continues to unfold.

»Although many Bosnians experienced occupational downward mobility, an economic boom in St. Louis coupled with Bosnians’ strong family ties have created an opportunity to capitalize on family human resources. A large ethnic enclave also provides an information network, through which Bosnians seek educational and financial upward mobility for their children. Although many Bosnian refugees in St. Louis are Muslims, they have never experienced prejudice and discrimination, unlike Middle Eastern Muslims. Being Europeans and also secular Muslims have reinforced each other, rendering Bosnians racially ›invisible‹ in American society, which continues to appreciate whiteness« (Matsuo 2004).

In 2002 an Ottoman-style minaret was built beside the Islamic community center. This empty former bank office building was bought by the community center and restored as a house of prayer. In spite of a small protest, good relations to the mayor and confidence on both sides have made possible the construction of the minaret, which can be found at most Bosnian mosques. I see this minaret as fulfilling two functions. First, it disrupts the visuality of this typical American mid-city, providing an element of surprise situated between townhouses and a shopping mall. Second, it is the embodiment of the lived and acknowledged transnational identity. Erol Yildiz (Yildiz 2009: 09) sees the difficulties in understanding migrational processes in the fact that in Europe, racism still must be dealt with ›as everyday normality‹ (based on Foucault’s hegemony-dispositive, 1978) and it seems at first glance as if this is not the case in an immigration country like the USA. The paradox is that the same problem must be dealt with here, except that everyday racism is directed in another direction. In the case of immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is used as ›positive discrimination‹.

As white Europeans, they don’t stand out individually. Because of the prevailing non-white racism, they receive preferential treatment when searching for a job and an apartment. Since this increases opportunities in American society enormously, it also increases their impact on the city and the visibility of the changes in the city.

This text is an excerpt of the article Disrupting the Visual Paradigm, Amila Sirbegovic published in Space (Re)Solutions, Intervention and Research in Visual Culture, Peter Mörtenböck, Helge Mosshammer (eds.), 2011 trancript Verlag, Bielefeld

Bibliography

Matsuo, Hisako (2004): »Bosnian Refugee Resettlement in St. Louis, Missouri«. In: Peter Waxman and Val Colic-Peisker (eds.), Homeland Wanted: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Refugee Resettlement in the West, Hauppauge: Nova Science Publishers.

Yildiz, Erol (2009): »Von der Hegemonie zur Diversität. Ein neuer Blick auf die Migrationsgesellschaft«. dérive, Zeitschrift für Stadtforschung, 37, p. 8–13.

 1Duldung (German) = acquiescence (English)

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