Urban Quarters—Somewhere in the Mid-City

Posted on April 6, 2012

In the Bevo Area, South City in St. Louis, a Bosnian community in search of its own post-Yugoslav identity has unintentionally contributed to this city’s renewal. St. Louis is the second largest city in the US State of Missouri and has an estimated population of over 350,000 and is the principal municipality of Greater St. Louis, population 2,800,000, the largest urban area in Missouri, the fourth largest urban area in the Midwest, and the fifteenth largest in the United States.1 Like every other US city, St. Louis was formed by migration, especially in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries by immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Italy. They helped to shape the cuisine, religious expression, music and architecture of the city.2 In 1993 a new big wave of immigration from Europe began. These immigrants were war refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who almost immediately started reshaping the city by creating better living conditions for themselves.

This article provides insight into to the current situation in this particular mid-city, questions the impact of positive discrimination and racism on its development and shows how a post-9/11 minaret is changing the homogeneity of this area. Going forward and backward along the immigration and geographical time line‹3 I compare three different urban areas, each of them renewed by local immigrants but also directly and indirectly connected through historical and immigration events. Highlighting the potential of the latest developments helps to explain these events and to find answers to the following questions: Considering current political developments in the EU such as the ban on minarets in Switzerland or the rise of right-wing parties with anti-immigration and islamophobic platforms in the Netherlands or Austria, what can we learn from an immigration country that traditionally cultivates religious freedom such as the USA? Or rather is there anything that we can learn from »American society, which continues to appreciate whiteness?« (Matsuo 2004).

My research is focussed on the visible phenomena of the transnational way of life of migrants, such as the social construction of transnational space and its connections and possible relations to the constructed environment. The transnational migration practice changes urban areas and leads to neighbourhood development without planners. The essay focuses on active, self-organized participation and mostly informal networks in the urban quarters of migrants from Bosnia and migrants in Bosnia, concentrating on three cities in particular: Sarajevo (BiH), Vienna (Aut) and St. Louis (USA). In order to understand migration and its phenomena, this research is only possible outside national state borders.4 Migrants do not live in two different worlds; instead, through their transnational lifestyles, they create a new space that they themselves define, limit and expand. According to Daniela Ahrens (2001) these transnational spaces are not only the sum of different locations in different countries; they are characterized by the »stacking of different social spaces over several surface areas« (Ahrens 2001: 148).

Living and working in exile in London, Duska Zagorac, director of the documentary Patria Mia (2008), made a movie about the growing Chinese community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She came to realize that these people are a mirror image of her own migration and the dislocation of Bosnian people. »The role of emigrants [and immigrants] is important in a sense of defining the identity of a country, which functions as an almost imaginary picture of those who have left and as a space for struggling for survival of those who have stayed or returned«.5 The documentary Patria Mia, arose out of the project »Bosnia and Herzegovina—Searching for Lost Identity«, which invited artists to create works on the lost identity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the issues was that these artists live all over the world and that they »are the citizens of this country, no matter where they live«.6 My constantly changing migrant identity, personal experiences, and self-reflection are an integral and important part of my work. This research concentrates on issues that are interrelated. What I do is to comprehend migration from different point of views. I take on different roles, switching from me as an architect to me as a researcher and also to me as a migrant. As a migrant, reshaping one’s own environment is part of the search for one’s own identity. In particular, the second and third generations of migrants are creating a new, hybrid draft of their own lives, made of different elements and assembled together, where their own history of migration needs to be rethought again. Erol Yildiz talks of ›postmigration‹, which is a new way of understanding processes and the projective past of migration (Yildiz 2009: 12).

The international movement of people affects and changes space, recreating, redefining and reshaping it and every individual involved. Migration simultaneously recreates the new seized space and the space left behind. Migration results in the creation of a new, vibrant, ever-changing identity for individuals as well as for cities embedded into the newly created transnational space.

How is the constructed environment modified by this transnationalism? How can architectural practice react to this ›socially dense‹ space? Could or should it be transformed by planners and how can we visualize its qualities? Can immigration be seen as a tool for reshaping the city, opening up new possibilities and visualizing the unplanned, inconceivable and unregulated city?

Working migrants (Gastarbeiter) who immigrated to Western Europe in the early 1960s settled mostly for economic reasons in the so-called ›mid-city‹ (Sieverts 2008: 14). According to Sieverts, the ›mid-city‹ lies between »the single, special place as a geographical-historical event and the everywhere similar establishments of the world’s economic division of labour« (Sieverts 2008: 14). These districts are a result of the historical development of cities in Europe in the industrial nineteenth century. They are mostly former working class quarters, forgotten and neglected by urban planning for decades and now rediscovered, redefined and redesigned by migrants. It is precisely these parts of cities—wrongly labeled by populists and the media as ›ghettos‹, dangerous and parallel societies—that have a potential for lively urban development. Teddy Cruz sees in the US mid-city (Cruz 2004) a potential for ›critical engagement‹7 with the prevailing architectural practice. Urban life with all its processes happens there.

The area around Ottakringer Straße, the border between the sixteenth and seventeenth Viennese districts, is a former suburban workers’ area, with a high density of buildings from the period of promoterism and a lack of green areas and public space. More than 25 per cent of residents of the sixteenth and seventeenth Viennese districts are not Austrian citizens.8 Here is where I started my research on the potential for urban development and other visible phenomena of migration inside the European Union. A comparison with other political systems (regarding migration issues) was crucial, especially with a country on the border of the EU and an immigration country with an official immigration history such as the USA (in contrast to Austria, whose politicians still don’t dare to proclaim officially that it is an immigration country). Therefore, I expanded my research to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the border of the EU and St. Louis in the classic immigration country USA in order to explore the causes and effects of the global issue of migration from different points of view.

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


Ahrens, Daniela (2001): Grenzen der Enträumlichung. Weltstädte, Cyberspace und transnationale Räume in der globalisieren Moderne, Opladen: Leske + Budrich.

Bauböck, Rainer/Faist, Thomas (2010): Diaspora and Transnationalism: Concepts, Theories and Methods, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Cruz, Teddy (2004): Border Postcards: Chronicles from the Edge, http://www.cca.qc.ca/en/education-events/259-teddy-cruz-border-postcardschronicles-from-the-edge

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.

Sieverts, Thomas (2008): Zwischenstadt. Zwischen Ort und Welt, Raum und Zeit, Stadt und Land, Basel: Birkhäuser.

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

1 U. S. Census Bureau 2009, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/29510.html

2 Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis,_Missouri [accessed 15 February 2011]

3 In order to understand migration development in Vienna, Austria, I tracked migration back to the former Yugoslavia, to Bosnia and Herzegovina. There I found on the one hand a vivid Chinese community and on the other hand rumors about a successful Bosnian community in St. Louis, USA. By following these ›tracks‹, a new space connected through migration was created.

4 »… concepts such as transnationalism—and transnational spaces, fields and formations— refer to process that transcend international borders and therefore appear to describe more abstract phenomena in a social science language. By transnational space we mean relatively stable, lasting and dense sets of ties reaching beyond and across borders of sovereign states« (Bauböck/Faist 2010: 13).

5 See: »Bosnia and Herzegovina—Searching for Lost Identity« 2008, http://www.pro.ba/en/bosna-i-hercegovina-u-potrazi-za-izgubljenim-identitetombosnia-and-herzegovina-searching-for-lost-identity/

6 See Ibid.

7 »[…] instead, the most experimental work in housing in the United States is in the hands of progressive, community-based, non-profit organizations, as well as small communities across the continent. These engage the social dynamics of unique neighborhoods daily, mediating their histories and identities and the planning policies that shape their destiny« (Cruz 2004).

8 Magistrat der Stadt Wien, MA 17—Integrations- und Diversitätsangelegenheiten (2007): MigrantInnen in Wien 2007—Daten, Fakten, Recht, info sheet, p. 7.

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