Vocal Yokels

Bosnians give some folks in St. Louis Hills the willies

Aug 1, 2001 at 4:00 am
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.

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."

But aside from a bushel of parking and speeding tickets, this isn't normal fare for a city cop. Oldani says there have been no calls concerning fights, no assaults, no robberies, no drugs. "They don't drink," Oldani says. "We haven't found any alcohol on these kids." Yikes. These kids aren't assimilated yet.

Lynn Muench, chairwoman of the block-captain program in St. Louis Hills, thinks the constant harping by a few members of the St. Louis Hills Neighborhood Association has triggered too much attention from the police.

"I'm concerned there is an inordinate amount of police attention to Willmore Park," says Muench. "Other parks and neighborhoods in South City are not getting the type of police protection they deserve. We're having a rash of garage break-ins and car thefts, and the cops are down at Willmore Park."

There's the rub. In the upper-crust St. Louis Hills 'hood, drive-by shootings and armed robberies are something they watch on the 10 o'clock news. Squealing tires and macho-man stares from uppity young'uns -- that's the time to call the cops.

Ginny Nester, the original chairwoman of the block-captain program, says Willmore Park is being used more now than ever before, and she's glad of it. She's visited the park more lately because of the complaints, and she admits that speeding cars have been a bit of a problem, the same way they have been on and off for the last 30 years. The increased police presence has decreased the problem, she says, but she doesn't like the tone of recent events:

"My concern is when a very, very insignificant number of people in this neighborhood can go out to the political people and the police, presenting this as a huge problem when in reality it is not. It affects my neighborhood unbelievably. St. Louis Hills does not always enjoy the best reputation in the world. In my dealings with other neighborhoods, they say, 'You're part of that elitist group.' This is my home. At times I am ashamed to say I live in St. Louis Hills. This is one of those times. I've said at board meetings, 'Who's going to be next? Who's going to decide who the next target will be?' That's what I'm concerned about."

Oldani has heard this concern, and he's defensive about the ethnic-profiling allegation. "Anybody who comes in and says the police are profiling the Bosnians, that's a load. We're not," he says. "The radar gun, when it picks up a car coming at you from two blocks away, can't differentiate who's in it. It just picks up the speed."

Ron Klutho, of the St. Pius V Refugee Support Program, says Bosnians may be using Willmore to replicate what is known in Bosnia as the korzo, an evening gathering place. Normally the korzo would be a place to stroll around near downtown or an area with shops and cafés, but a park could serve the same purpose. A coffee shop several blocks north of Willmore on Hampton Avenue is called Café Korzo. Whatever the intent of the Bosnians using the park, Oldani wants to make it clear that they are welcome there, as long as they follow the rules.

"There's a couple of things I need to set straight here: Some St. Louis Hills residents, as well as Bosnians alike, think we're singling the Bosnians out. We're not. We're not singling anybody out. I'm not sure they know what the ordinances are," says Oldani. "The police are not trying to wage a war against the Bosnian community. We just need to keep the peace in the park. The park is for everyone. The park needs to be made safe for everyone."

And not just the people who got here first. Besides, where did those Indians go?