Vocal Yokels

Bosnians give some folks in St. Louis Hills the willies

There are so many Bosnians in St. Louis that when the International Festival held a soccer tournament in Tower Grove Park in June, the Bosnians beat the Bosnians in the championship game. There were eight teams of immigrants from various countries in the competition, including Nigeria, Iraq and Eritrea, but in the final match, Bosnia 1 beat Bosnia 2. Or maybe it was the other way around, but either way you call it, when you talk internationalism and immigrants in St. Louis, Bosnians rule.

And that's fine. Short Cuts is glad to see that the River City has more Bosnians than just about any city west of Sarajevo. They won't replace the 550,000 people who have died or left St. Louis since 1950, and the 25,000-plus Bosnians who have arrived won't quicken the glacial growth of the metro area, but they do fill vacant brick homes and generate tax dollars. The coffee's not bad, either.

But alas, there are problems -- minor problems, to be sure, but bumps in the road. Speed bumps. It seems that young Bosnians have adapted all too well to this country's obsession with cars and cruising. If they remade the old George Lucas flick about those adolescent pursuits, they could film it in Willmore Park in southwest St. Louis and call it Bosnian Graffiti.

Friday evening at Willmore Park
Jennifer Silverberg
Friday evening at Willmore Park

The increased number of young Bosnians using the park, burning rubber from fast starts and generally loitering as adolescents are wont to do, has alarmed some of the good folks in neighboring St. Louis Hills. The topic has been taken up at several neighborhood association meetings this year, and, in response to a vocal though small faction, police have responded with stepped-up patrols of the park and letters to the "Bosnian community" about speed limits, permits for picnic shelters and the illegality of "standing in the roadway."

Some of the pissed-off residents' rhetoric has been extreme. It's not enough to land anyone in The Hague as a roommate of Slobodan Milosevic, but lines such as "Run them out of the park" and "They've taken over Willmore" are more than a bit deranged. It's a public park, folks; it's everybody's back yard. Lighten up, OK? If this funky town is going to be helped by an influx of Asians, Bosnians, Hispanics, Africans, Eastern Europeans and whomever, the current landed gentry must broaden their worldview, or neighborhood view.

Xenophobia is an ugly thing, and most times, outside private conversations, people won't own up to it. When the main irritant of the Willmore flap got a call from Short Cuts, he folded up like a cheap tent. All parks have problems, he says, not just Willmore. What letter to the Bosnians from police? Never heard about it. In this case, his name will be omitted to protect the guilty. But he's real, and he has company out there in the abyss.

One target of this intolerance has been Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th), who represents the area just north of the park. Shrewsbury has gotten grief when he's included paragraphs written in Bosnian in his newsletter: "The negative feedback is always anonymous phone calls or anonymous letters. They say, 'Why are you putting some foreign language in your newsletter? We all ought to be able to read and write English. When our relatives came here, they had to learn to read and write English.'"

Of course that's hogwash, as Shrewsbury notes. Many immigrants in the last century were English or Irish and already spoke the language. Those immigrants who didn't seldom learned English well; it was their children who became fluent.

But now that globalization has reached Willmore, the cops do what they always do: respond to pressure. The rabid resident who declined to go on the record has complained to everyone from Mayor Francis Slay to the police, alleging that Bosnians have been relieving themselves in public, threatening people's lives, having sex in open areas and indulging in illegal drinking and drugs. The top cop for the 2nd District, Capt. Robert Oldani, is trying to keep the peace in more ways than one, stepping up the police presence in the park but not acting like it's that big of a deal. What it boils down to is a bunch of newcomers in the park driving Firebirds, Mustangs and "anything that looks like it goes fast or can go fast," he says.

"They gather in the evening hours and on weekends. They come into the park, and they park their cars and sit on the hoods and the trunks, bullshitting just like any other normal person would do," Oldani says. "Nothing has happened to the point where we're going bring in the mobile reserve outfitted in their war gear. It's not that type of a situation."

Other cultural glitches include Bosnians' settling in at a picnic site and then refusing to leave when someone with a permit for the site shows up, a soccer field strewn with cigarette butts because players smoked as they played, and blockage or slowing of traffic by pedestrian gatherings in the roadway.

"Some people felt it was intimidating. I didn't personally observe any of that," Oldani says. "People would honk their horn, and they'd get a stare, that 16-year-old stare, and they felt intimidated by it when they had their families in the car."

Next Page »