Geography determines destiny – thats the axiom used to explain the geostrategic considerations of the world today, a concept that originated at the beginning of geopolitical thinking and later popularised by Robert Kaplan.
And elaborated upon by some amazing videos on youtube. Here’s a sampling.
But global geopolitics is not the topic of the day. Local geography is, because the phrase geography is destiny can, in my view, be used at a municipal level too.
One of the places I knew I had to visit in Oslo was Grünerløkka. Grünerløkka was described as a hipster town and a former ghetto on the east of the Åkersund River. It was talked about as the trendy district of Oslo, written about in the lifestyle and travel sections of fancy Conde Nest magazines and the like. Always in these articles would be a section that referred to the district as a former working class district that has been revitalised and is presently hip and cool. This was gentrification, the romanticisation of ghettos that exists in many cities today. This is the same with Sodermalm in Stockholm and Haga in Gothenburg. I may sound disparaging, as if I’d seen this narrative too many times to care (nah, I’m just salty cause I’m not hip enough. Kidding!)… So why go there then?
It wasn’t the hip bars/cafes that attracted me. It was that there were supposed to live here on this part of town real hippies, not unlike Christiania in Copenhagen just without the open sale of weed. It was more than people posing to be cool, it was people living an unconventional way – unconventionally cool people like Edvard Munch.
Something niggled at the way locals described the transformation if Grüneløkka. As if eager to deter our minds from some other conclusion, the introduction by several individuals and articles dwelled on the fact that the city was on the east side of a river.
Pungent, noxious smells waffling through the town seemed to be the effect of living east of a water body. Breezes tend to blown eastward so any foul odours end up permeating the air of the eastern town. This included industrial waste and human excrement among them. All this meant that the destiny of any population of people east to an important water body was always worse than those west of it. And by extension provided a reason for why there used to be an industrial ghetto, in the capital of the richest people on earth.
Surprised by the east-west water body idea, I decided to examine the facts on a map. If that statement was true then of all the cities I have visited with a water body, this fact should apply. Warsaw, check. Gdansk, check. Riga, check. Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Singapore and Stockholm… check (the main water bodies were west facing). Was this true of a random city anywhere in the world? I decided to check it again. Seoul, check. Tunis, check. Buenos Aires, check. Istanbul, check.
Most of these eastern towns have been revitalised and reenergised. But the last thing they’d want to be described as is cookie cutter. Every revitalised, gentrified former ghetto has its own unique selling point. In Oslo, Grüneløkka’s selling point was that it was different from the rest of Oslo – it was not prim and proper, it was not neat and clean, it was not planned and orderly. It was controlled chaos, organised chaos and that was perhaps its charm.
Apart from being headquarters to the hippie life, house to the best food hall in town, and home to countless university students, Grüneløkka was also filled with antique shops that recycled all nature of products and sold them in shop fronts.
The nerd in me was drawn to a book store that stocked antique books, perhaps not to read them but certainly to take a look at them. So I went off in searching of that antique book store.
My feet followed the streets, my body meandered with my legs and my head looked up at the buildings. Street art decorated the walls of this otherwise pristine city. It wasn’t just spray cans and ugly words as graffiti is wont to be but rather art pieces painted with high pressured paint on a rock camvass. Such was the skill of the artists…
My knee bent acutely as I tried to catch myself mid-fall. My trailing leg had got caught up in a small brick that protruded out of the granite.
Recovering from a near fall, I turned back to look at what idiot had thrown something. Only it wasn’t throw there and it wasn’t a brick, it was a gold plated tile purposely laid on the street. I looked closer at the tile and the door in front of it. It had a name.
“Deported Auschwitz, 1942.”
I had tripped over a memorial on the ground.
Grüneløkka was once the home of the Jewish community in Oslo and 800 were taken to comcentration camps during World War II, never to return. An act that was performed not by the German soldiers but by Norwegians.
This dark part of Norwegian history hasn’t been whitewashed but still lives on in the golden bricks. Whether it works in casting aside the anti-Jewish past is another matter since being Jewish and being called a Jew is a derogatory term in many Norwegian communities today, as this film from Norways TV2 investigates.
The elevated golden bricks were meant to remind people of that past, lain as they were on the front doors of the houses where these people used to live. And perhaps it was required. Grüneløkka is so hipster and hot now that without these plates there would perhaps be no visible reminders of a bygone tragedy.
I was reminded of the romanticism of the past when I reached the antique books store, wonderful looking titles, with the smell of well worn paper… But that view of the past was rose-tinted, and that was the most obvious version of a previous era.
In fact when I reached the real hippie area, I could easily have forgotten anything about that tragic past…
ON THE MAP