The Bevo Question

What will happen to St. Louis' Little Bosnia when it's not so Bosnian?

The Bevo Mill, reborn as Das Bevo, reopened in May.
The Bevo Mill, reborn as Das Bevo, reopened in May. DOYLE MURPHY

Tony Zanti walks up the sidewalk along the newly laid blacktop of Gravois Avenue as drivers zip past a string of revamped buildings on the north edge of Bevo Mill.

"These were all boarded-up buildings," he says, pointing at them one by one. "Boarded up. Boarded up. There used to be a building there, but they tore it down."

Now, the block includes one of the city's better Mexican restaurants, a hair salon and Gurlly Gurl, a women's clothing boutique decorated with a sharp pink logo that pops off the shop's dark windows. There's more good news — critical news for Bevo, really — just to the south. The towering Bevo Mill reopened in May, with a smart new German-influenced restaurant on site, more than a year after one of the former operation's partners bolted to Arizona.

"That's our flagship," Alderwoman Carol Howard says. "If the Bevo Mill is closed, it doesn't do well for the neighborhood."

The new owners, husband and wife team Pat and Carol Schuchard, have embraced the wonderful weirdness of beer baron August Busch Sr.'s audacious watering hole, rechristening the landmark as Das Bevo with a winking tagline: "World Famous. Only in St. Louis."

Things had been a little bleak in Bevo. Bosnian refugees, who had filled and revived the neighborhood during the mid 1990s and early 2000s, still own businesses along the X-shaped commercial district of Gravois and Morganford Road, but they have nearly all moved to the county in search of safer homes and better schools for their kids. In the vacuum left behind, an old reputation for crime had begun to resurface as one of the neighborhood's defining features. Bevo Mill became a locator to orient news audiences during reports of double homicides, shoot-first robberies and, horrifically, a deadly hammer attack.

But now, with the old windmill spinning, brunch crowds flocking and trendy dive bars such as the Silver Ballroom and the Heavy Anchor proving they're here to stay, business owners like Zanti see new buzz around Bevo.

"It's the next Cherokee Street," he says.

Tony Zanti behind the ornate bar at Luna Lounge. - DOYLE MURPHY
Tony Zanti behind the ornate bar at Luna Lounge.

Zanti, who quit high school and bought his first property at age eighteen, began investing in Bevo in 1999 with a used car lot and six cars. He now owns real estate all over the city, but the bulk of his holdings are still concentrated here on Gravois. He owns twenty buildings on this street alone.

Maybe it won't be the next Cherokee Street. Others along Bevo's main drag look toward the future and see the next South Grand, the next Grove or even the next Delmar Loop. Certainly, the district will never see an influx as big as the thousands of Bosnians who moved here in a very short time nearly a quarter-century ago. But Zanti envisions a wave of hipsters or Latinos, or "maybe a combination."

He unlocks one of his places, the shuttered Luna Lounge, which has been closed more than a year. It's all low lights and exposed brick. Zanti points out the arched opening where they expanded the space into the next room years ago.

But the show stopper is the bar itself. Carved in Germany for the 1904 World's Fair, the polished wood rises majestically to the ceiling. Anheuser-Busch used to rent out the bar from time to time to use as a backdrop for commercials, Zanti says.

He figures the old Luna would make a great "hipster bar" at some point. The rent is $2,000 a month, low compared to what he thinks he could ask in other parts of the city. Zanti says he could even charge more here, but he is looking for a tenant who will thrive in the new Bevo.

"I want someone who is going to make it," he says.

Until then, he keeps the door locked and waits.

Vahida Mahmutovic stretches the dough at Zlatno Zito Bakery and Deli. - DOYLE MURPHY
Vahida Mahmutovic stretches the dough at Zlatno Zito Bakery and Deli.

To be clear, the Bosnians who came to Bevo are not really gone. On any afternoon, the booths of Caffe Milano coffee shop are filled with men of all ages, and a few women, drinking strong coffee and Coca-Cola in small glass bottles. The workers at Zlatno Zito Bakery and Deli speak almost exclusively Bosnian as they stretch the dough impossibly thin across back tables before whirling it into ropes of bread. First Bosnian Insurance Agency is open for business, and shoppers still wander the aisles of Europa Market in search of comfort foods they cannot find anywhere else.

It's just that now, most of these people go home at night to south St. Louis County or even Jefferson County. Ibrahim Vajzovic recently searched through voter rolls and estimates the number of Bosnians still living in south city is down to several hundred.

"Not many of us live in Bevo Mill anymore, but we are still connected to that area through our businesses," Vajzovic says.

He arrived in St. Louis in 1994 along with thousands of other refugees. The International Institute sponsored 6,900 and Catholic Charities' refugee services sponsored another 2,500. Those initial arrivals attracted tens of thousands more friends and family members until the metro area had what many believe is the largest concentration of Bosnians outside of Bosnia. International Institute President Anna Crosslin estimates as many as 50,000 settled here.

The institute helped place the first waves of newcomers in Bevo for practical reasons, Crosslin says: The neighborhood had a cache of affordable housing, and it was an easy bus ride to the organization's headquarters, which were then on South Grand.

Sadik Kukic, chair​man​ of​ the​ Bevo Community Improvement District, says the neighborhood needs more diversity. - DOYLE MURPHY
Sadik Kukic, chair​man​ of​ the​ Bevo Community Improvement District, says the neighborhood needs more diversity.

Vajzovic and his family lived in an apartment complex off of Gravois at the southern tip of Bevo. Fourteen Bosnian families stayed in the twenty-unit building back then.

"We were like one big family, like Little Bosnia in that building," he says.

Now, people look back at the refugees' history in St. Louis as a huge boost for Bevo and the city, but Crosslin remembers all the complaints that flooded the institute during the early years. Neighbors bitched about the shoes left on front porches and the smoke from the backyard smokehouses built by some Bosnians. Little old ladies would see a group of refugees roasting a goat and swear they had the family pet on the spit.

"Oh my God, we had calls here constantly," Crosslin says. "We had people call that they were barbecuing dogs, 'they're killing sheep, there's rivers of blood.'"

The Bosnians were, of course, not cooking dogs, but the fear of newcomers was not anything new, either. Crosslin remembers a similar surge of complaints when the Vietnamese began moving into south city a few decades before that. Everyone has finally settled down, and the Bosnians impressed their new city with their industriousness and aptitude for business.

Bevo also saw a resurgence.

"It was all boarded-up," Crosslin says. "It got a second breath from the Bosnian resettlement."

Vajzovic, who had earned a master's in engineering in Bosnia, started over in St. Louis. His first job was an entry-level position at a print shop that paid $8 an hour, and from there he began to build.

Now an instructor of business management at Webster University after earning a master's and then a doctorate there, Vajzovic and his wife own several businesses. First Bosnian on Gravois is their insurance agency. They recently sold off a successful trucking operation, and their real estate business has about forty properties, including that twenty-unit apartment building where they first lived.

Their family, too, has flourished. His daughters graduated from two of the country's top law schools, University of Chicago and Harvard, and work in Chicago and New York. His son has a master's in engineering from Washington University.

Vajzovic and his family are among countless success stories of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis. For this, he is grateful, and particularly grateful to Bevo.

"The neighborhood is very friendly to us," he says.

Vajzovic was part of a group that has worked in recent years to establish a new development district in Bevo. It was easy enough to see that Bosnian businesses alone would not be able to sustain the neighborhood into the future. They needed an infusion of diverse newcomers. So he and others began collecting signatures for what would eventually become the Bevo Community Improvement District. Approved last year, the district covers a strip of Gravois from Taft Avenue in the north to Christy Avenue in the south. The new board has hired Park Central Development, the neighborhood planners whose résumé includes similar districts in the Grove and Central West End.

They don't have a lot of money — voters rejected a one percent sales tax, leaving only a special assessment on property owners in the district — but they plan to start by reinvigorating Bevo's image. Hannah Curtin of Park Central says they're working on a new logo and plan to start small with a "This Could Be" campaign of covering the windows of empty storefronts with posters detailing potential uses for the spaces.

The board hopes a second run at the sales tax vote will eventually help fund additional security and infrastructure projects, which could include pedestrian lighting. Board Chairman Sadik Kukic says they have set a goal of attracting one new business a month to Bevo.

"We have to bring life to the neighborhood," he says.

Kukic, who came to St. Louis in 1993 from a concentration camp, says he sees similarities to South Grand, where an abundance of Vietnamese restaurants started by that earlier wave of refugees have melted into an international mix of restaurants, bars and shops.

"People are still thinking about old things happening here," says Kukic, who is also president of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce. "I think a lot of things are changing."

The neighborhood's crime problem looms large in public perception, but not all its residents feel it's as bad as its image. - DOYLE MURPHY
The neighborhood's crime problem looms large in public perception, but not all its residents feel it's as bad as its image.

Everyone in Bevo Mill talks at some point about crime. Opinions are split about whether it gets too much attention or not enough, but the topic is unavoidable.

"Last year there was a shooting," Mina Omerovic says one afternoon in her kitchen.

The 33-year-old housekeeper is one of the few Bosnians who have stayed in the neighborhood. She's talking about a 73-year-old man who police say gunned down a pair of armed robbers in February 2016 when they ambushed him in his garage. The bloody showdown happened in the middle of the afternoon about four blocks south of where Omerovic lives with her husband and five kids. Now, she keeps the door to her backyard shut, even when it's warm and she would prefer the breeze.

At times, some Bosnians have felt like crimes against their community have gone unnoticed. When 32-year-old Zemir Begic was bludgeoned to death with hammers in the early morning hours of November 30, 2014 on Itaska Street, dozens of Bosnians protested in the middle of Bevo. Some held signs that said "Bosnian Lives Matter." Police arrested four teens in the attack, one of whom has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

"Morganford used to be like a small community in Bosnia," Omerovic says. "Everybody like Morganford, like Bevo Mill. Now it's 2017. People move."

She does not blame those who go — everyone has to do what they think is best for their families — but she still has a few friends and family members nearby. Ultimately, she figures crime can happen anywhere, even the county, so she and her family are staying for now.

There are certainly more dangerous places. When then-Mayor Francis Slay and Alderman Antonio French identified Bevo in December 2015 as one of fifteen high-crime neighborhoods to be targeted for services as part of a new plan to reduce crime in the city, they put it on a list with places such as south city neighbor Dutchtown and Wells Goodfellow in north city, where crime totals are far, far worse. Bevo was actually the safest of all the neighborhoods on the list, but it's not exactly a selling point to say you're only the fifteenth most dangerous of the city's 79 neighborhoods.

"The biggest challenge is to make people aware that we have businesses here that are thriving and that it's safe," Howard, the alderwoman, says.

She admits security has been a concern but insists perception is much worse than reality. Less than a week after Begic was killed, a woman claimed four young black men forced her out of her car, robbed her at gunpoint and said they should kill her because she was Bosnian. The story made headlines as a possible hate crime, but it was later revealed to be a hoax when police found video that showed the woman was never approached by anyone, much less attacked.

Bevo's reputation for crime often overshadows better characteristics of the neighborhood, Howard says, such as a comparatively affordable cache of houses. The alderwoman suspects that may be changing. Building permits are up, she says, and she sees anecdotal evidence in the 35- and 40-year-olds she has noticed moving in. They, like the Bosnians before them, seem to be finding a neighborhood with potential.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for neighborhood watchers was the opening of Das Bevo. Owners Carol and Pat Schuchard say they considered crime before buying the mill from the city in May 2016.

"We at first wanted to make sure it was safe," says Carol, an artist who also owns event spaces Majorette and the Boo Cat Club with her husband.

What they saw didn't scare them. They have spent the thirteen months since their purchase working day and night to restore the landmark, which includes a massive beer hall, wide patio, underground event space and even bedrooms up in the windmill tower that they eventually plan to rent out for overnight stays. Now, with Das Bevo up and running, the Schuchards say their early assessments of the neighborhood as a safe place and good investment have proven correct.

"You would think there are assassins lining up on Gravois," Carol Schuchard says of Bevo's reputation. "It's not that way at all."

Mariachi's II has thrived in Bevo Mill​, says Fredy Guijosa​. - DOYLE MURPHY
Mariachi's II has thrived in Bevo Mill​, says Fredy Guijosa​.

Mariachi's II opened five years ago in the heart of Little Bosnia.

"It was kind of a risk," says Fredy Guijosa, whose family owns the Mexican restaurant. "For one, it was Bosnia Town, as you can see. We really didn't think we were going to be as successful as we have been."

The fact that there weren't any other Mexican restaurants nearby seemed a little scary, but to Guijosa, it was also a bonus. Instead of trying to battle it out with a half-dozen spots on Cherokee Street, Mariachi's was able to tap into a crowd of margarita-drinking customers all the way to Fenton. They also got a lot of walk-in business from the neighborhood, which Guijosa says they didn't expect. Their success has not gone unnoticed. Mi Lindo Michoacan opened recently on Gravois to critical acclaim, and a third Mexican restaurant is expected to open across the parking lot from Mariachi's in the vacant home of the former Bosna Gold, a Bosnian restaurant that some believe was the first of its kind in St. Louis.

"I really think they want a piece of the pie," Guijosa says of the sudden influx of competitors.

Bevo still feels wide-open when it comes to new ventures, but businesses such as Mariachi's, which once seemed like islands in a monoculture, are finding they're no longer alone. Laconia Adams says she has seen four or five salons pop up along Gravois since she opened Styles 4 U Salon nearly seven years ago in one of Zanti's buildings on the north end of the strip.

"I cannot complain," she says. "Last year was my best year."

The majority of her clientele is African-American, but Adams says the neighborhood's diversity is what she likes best.

"I've got people that come in with a translator," she says. "They have a picture, and they point, and we make it work."

Oleatha Gurlly atook Gurlly Gurl from an online shop to a brick-and-mortar store on Gravois Avenue. - DOYLE MURPHY
Oleatha Gurlly atook Gurlly Gurl from an online shop to a brick-and-mortar store on Gravois Avenue.

She has found a communal spirit here. She organized a toy drive with the owners of Gurlly Gurl last Christmas. If her car needs work, she takes it next door to A Plus Auto Care, and when the garage's owner, Dave Ratliff, needs a haircut, he knows to drop in.

"It's a south city neighborhood where we're all trying to make it," says Maximus "Max" Coric, who owns C&C Quality Printing with his father, Mirko "Mike" Coric. The father and son are Croatian-American, a fact you might gather from the flag emblem above the shop door or the massive print of the country's scenic coastline posted inside on an office wall.

The father arrived in 1964, fleeing communism on a journey that took him through the former Yugoslavia and France. He played for the St. Louis Stars soccer team as a younger man and studied mechanical engineering at Washington University. Partially retired at age 77, he drops in at the shop to fill a few orders and banter with his son.

Maximus​, l​eft​,​ and father - Mirko Coric run a busy print shop in the middle of Bevo. - DOYLE MURPHY
Maximus​, l​eft​,​ and fatherMirko Coric run a busy print shop in the middle of Bevo.

They're explaining the finer points of the geo-politics of the Slavic languages when they start talking over each other.

"Don't interrupt when I'm talking," he tells Max.

"As if you would let me," the son shoots back, laughing.

The print shop has been in business since 1981, and Max says they've seen the neighborhood cycle up and down. Each new group of immigrants brings a little of their culture and leaves with a little of others'. C&C does everything from vehicle wraps for businesses to wedding invitations. On this particular afternoon, Max fills a small order for a couple of T-shirts. A young woman has died, and these will be printed with her picture and dates of birth and death.

A four-year-old boy with long braids and a big smile sprints around the shop as his aunt tries to keep up. Partway through the work, Max learns the woman on the shirts is the boy's mother.

"It's not easy," he says to the aunt. "I was six when my mom passed away."

Max lifts the little boy onto a table so he can see the machine work. There is a small space on the top of the machine where you can see the print coming through. In this case, it's the mother's smile.

"Momma, hi!" the boys says, and he waves.

Max finishes the shirts and walks them to the door. "Bye, little man," he says as they go.

Amela Okanovic grew up in Bevo and returned to the neighborhood to open a salon. - DOYLE MURPHY
Amela Okanovic grew up in Bevo and returned to the neighborhood to open a salon.

Even within the neighborhood's traditional Bosnian businesses, cultures have begun to blend together. Erna, Ermin and Senada Grbic recently opened Lemmons by Grbic. The siblings are second-generation restaurateurs, having grown up at the south St. Louis favorite Grbic Restaurant, the city's most famous Bosnian eatery. Their father bought the building three years ago when the old Lemmons folded, with plans for a new venture. Eventually, he instead handed it off to his kids.

They describe the fare as Balkan-American fusion, a mash-up of the traditional dishes they learned from their parents and the typical American meals they ate growing up with friends in south city: flatbread pizza topped with the little sausages called cevapi, chicken wings glazed with a Bosnian brandy called rakija and a version of the old Lemmons' fried chicken with Bosnian spices.

"It's been going over quite well," says Erna Grbic. "I think it's more people don't know what to expect."

Amela Okanovic, 32, grew up in Bevo. Like the Grbics, she had the blended childhood of a younger generation of Bosnians. She graduated from the ROTC program at the old Cleveland High School and was raised by parents who speak Bosnian almost exclusively.

After school, she went to work at a salon in Clayton, but three years ago she returned to Bevo, where she opened Infinity Hair Design on Gravois. She at first depended on her Clayton clients who followed her into south city, but eventually Bosnians began to come, too. Now, her business is a mix — about 60 percent Bosnians and 40 percent everyone else. She thinks all of Bevo will eventually be mixed, too.

Her shop is next to the Heavy Anchor, a bar that attracts a tattooed clientele for cheap PBR specials, metal bands and comedy shows. Okanovic is eager to see more businesses move in all around them.

"I can picture a book store," she says, looking out the window, "or a coffee shop — like an American coffee shop."

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