Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's in a Nabe?

It seems every city purports itself to be a "city of neighborhoods."

What really makes a neighborhood though? The City of St. Louis makes a bold claim--that it has 79 of these elusive quasi-political jurisdictions.

Many of these neighborhoods are such that their own residents know nothing of their official names. Anyone ever heard of Princeton Heights (#6)? Kingsway West (#52)? Covenant Blu (#77--that's just north of SLU, by the way)?

Still, the "city of neighborhoods" assignation seems to ring true of St. Louis. Take a walk through Lafayette Square. Its gorgeous "Painted Ladies," its nightlife centered on Park Avenue, its lush and tranquil park (the neighborhood's namesake--and the first public park west of the Mississippi) all say to you, "this is uniquely Lafayette Square."

Perhaps that's a more obvious example. So I'll take my own neighborhood. The Bevo neighborhood (#5) was once a stable white working class neighborhood of modest brick bungalows interspersed with German-style "barnhouses." The neighborhood's centerpiece, the aptly named Bevo Mill, is just that--a wind mill at the corner of Gravois and Morganford, an anachronistic wonder in the heart of urban St. Louis.

Today, Bevo is a bustling center for St. Louis's growing Bosnian population. Some estimates put the St. Louis Bosnian population at between 30 and 50 thousand, and a substantial number of them populate the streets of Bevo. As a newly-introduced ethnic neighborhood, what used to be an area of the city crying for its own distinction among South City nabes is now nothing short of a unique and tight-knit community. Bakeries, nightclubs, coffee shops, restaurants--all Bosnian owned and operated--dot the main commercial thoroughfares of the neighborhood where sad, shuttered empty storefronts once peered forlorn at the indifferent shuffling of traffic.

As I sat down at a Bosnian coffee house named "Cafe Milano," I absorbed the sounds of Eastern European music. Lounging in an impossibly funky red chair, I imbibed the fluidity of the atmosphere, admired the daring interior design of the structure that once housed a much less conspicuous footwear store.

Outside the wide storefront window, passers-by could not help but peer inside at the lights and activity of the coffee shop. Cars lined the street, flanked by the sidewalk so as to avoid the sideswipe by speeding Gravois traffic, and dutifuly lined up behind parking meters once starved for change.

Change, it seems, had been embracing the neighborhood ever since the arrival of the Bosnian immigrants. Their presence infused the area, once a sullen, graying, unambitious series of streets and sidewalks, with a sense a diversity and unmistakable community. Bevo is now every bit the degree of neighborhood that is the more affluent and well-known Lafayette Square.