Keeping Up With the Jasarevics

Bosnian refugees found safe haven in St. Louis in the 1990s. Many are on the move again -- this time to the suburbs.

The meeting is over, but Bob Dimitrijevich still wants to make a point. Cans of Budweiser and discount diet cola are being passed around after the end of a contentious but polite discussion in Alderman Dan Kirner's office, a converted barbershop at Keokuk Street and Gustine Avenue, across from Amberg Park.

"OK, let me just show you this," says Dimitrijevich, a tall, burly retired Mehlville High School teacher who came to St. Louis from Belgrade almost 40 years ago. Dimitrijevich, who served as interpreter during the meeting, shoves two pieces of paper toward Kirner, who is sitting behind his desk, talking to someone else.

"Rora just bought 100 lambs from New York," Dimitrijevich barks at Kirner. "He's going to smoke them."

Mark Gilliland
Anna Crosslin: "Immigration, long-term, is one of the things that's going to save the city, if anything can."
Mark Gilliland
Anna Crosslin: "Immigration, long-term, is one of the things that's going to save the city, if anything can."

Kirner is unmoved.

"This is not the problem," Kirner says. "The problem is the ones who go over to Illinois and buy up the live animals and bring them back over here and kill them."

"No kill meat!" blurts Fevzo "Rora" Islamovic.

Islamovic has been listening intently, and these are the first words of English he's uttered all night. He recently opened Rora's Mesnica, a combination grocery, deli and butcher shop at the corner of Finkman Street and Macklind Avenue in South St. Louis.

In Dimitrijevich's hands is a receipt for 100 lamb carcasses that were delivered to Rora's market earlier that day. Rora, a gray-haired Bosnian who's been in the U.S. for almost ten years, is a butcher, but he doesn't slaughter animals at his shop. He smokes some meat at his business, but thus far it's not caused a problem with his neighbors.

The same cannot be said of Miso Todorovic, whose backyard smokehouse on Blow Street is a sore point with neighbors Tom and Diane Wright. The Wrights showed up at Kirner's meeting armed with videotape of Todorovic's smokehouse, belching clouds of smoke. The smell is so overpowering, it has permeated the upholstery of his car, says Tom Wright.

Prompted by a handful of similar complaints, Kirner recently introduced a bill to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that would ban virtually all smokehouses in the city. Bosnians, by far the city's largest immigrant group, were irritated by the proposal, which they believe is aimed specifically at them and their culture. They were so worked up that Kirner's small office couldn't handle all the Bosnians who arrived to complain -- some were turned away.

Hanging around after Kirner's meeting, 24-year-old Bosnian Damir Huskic connects the dots of the smokehouse controversy and says it's really a cover for a simmering xenophobia. Huskic is a busy man. He works for Catholic Charities and sells real estate, and he's the proprietor of Caf Palermo, a coffeehouse at Delor Street and Alfred Avenue, in the shadow of the Bevo Mill. This month, he starts producing and hosting a television show about the Bosnian community on the city's public-access station.

The Wrights insisted that the problem was smoke, not Bosnians, but Huskic didn't believe them.

"She can't say, 'You Bosnians, I hate you, go back.' There is another way of doing that," Huskic says. "That's the smokehouses."

Huskic, as if warming up for his television show, boils the controversy down to a phrase that could fit on a bumper sticker. Of all the issues that face the nation's largest Bosnian refugee community -- estimated at 40,000 or more -- there are far more urgent ones than the right to build and operate a smokehouse.

Schools, real-estate prices and fear of crime all qualify.

"Gunsmoke is much more dangerous than meat smoke," says Huskic.

"That's what people should worry about."

If the recently settled Bosnian community did not exist in South St. Louis, it would be necessary for the city to invent it. The city needs warm bodies.

Most Bosnians who fled their war-torn land for the St. Louis area in the mid-'90s ended up within the city limits, attracted by the ample supply of sturdy, inexpensive brick homes. Despite the dramatic influx, the U.S. Census shows that from 1990 to 2000, the city lost 12.2 percent of its residents, the highest percentage loss among the 239 cities with more than 100,000 residents. That's a net loss of 48,496 people, dropping the city census to 348,189.

All else being equal, the city's fortunes would have been worse without the Bosnians. The not-so-good news is that they came, they saw and now they're moving to the suburbs. It's hard to quantify the numbers, but real-estate agents and school-district officials are seeing the early signs of a secondary exodus of Bosnians to the suburbs.

"Boy, they are flying out of the city, that's for sure," says one of the city's top-selling real-estate agents, who asked to remain anonymous. "They're pouring into Bayless, Affton, Mehlville. I just did a listing in Bayless, and when I told the seller half the buyers in his area are Bosnian, he said, 'Jesus, I know. The guys across the street and on either side of me are Bosnian.'"

A head count of Bosnians in each jurisdiction doesn't exist, but the general consensus is that as many as 20 percent of Bosnians who moved to the city less than a decade ago have since moved out.

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