Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Straight Outta Hammerkullen: The Miljonprogrammet.

When I first arrived in Sweden, the most off putting sight were the huge lifeless apartment blocks everywhere. Unless you’ve been to Sweden, you’re idea of Swedish housing is most probably the wooden red houses surrounded by forests and lakes. But in reality large mass-produced sterile concrete blocks are far more common. These buildings litter the skyline of every Swedish city and town, often on their outskirts. They can look so similar to old Soviet Union-era satellite towns that one could be forgiven for thinking the iron curtain was actually located 1000 km west of St. Petersburg.

Such suburbs are commonly referred to as Miljonprogrammet suburbs, named after the government initiative that spawned them. In 1965, in an effort to combat an emerging housing shortage, the Social Democrats launched the Miljonprogrammet (Swedish for the Million Programme), with the aim the building over a million new homes within ten years. The new dwellings were designed and built on the principles of cheap, simple, functional living. Much thought was given to providing shared facilities such as laundries, bike sheds and rubbish rooms, as well as public utilities such as parks, churches, libraries, nurseries, schools and hospitals. The new suburbs were designed just as much by sociologists as architects, with the eventual aim of building the ideal environment to breed healthy, comfortable, community-minded citizens, with all their basic needs provided for. The one factor that wasn’t taken into consideration was aesthetics. Housing needed to be built quickly and cheaply thus the grey concrete exteriors and monotonous design.

In Gothenburg typical Miljonprogrammet suburbs include Angered, Hammarkullen and Bergsjön. Other famous Miljonprogrammet suburbs are Rinkeby in Stockholm and Rosengård in Malmö. But the Miljonprogrammet are not limited to the big cities and even the smallest towns can boast their own Miljonprogrammet areas.

They were meant to be the suburbs of the future, and considering how they’ve ended up it’s amusing to look at original artists’ impressions and designs in museums. The sketches might depict something from The Jetsons, but forty years on the Miljonprogrammet suburbs are now synonymous with immigrants, crime, unemployment and social decay.

As I’ve already mentioned last month in another blog entry, Sweden is one of the most racially segregated countries I’ve ever seen, and it is the Miljonprogrammet suburbs that have ended up hosting nearly all the immigrants. In such areas there is barely a blonde hair in sight, yet other suburbs would suggest Sweden is the most culturally homogenous place on earth. Either a suburb is populated exclusively by immigrants, or not at all: the division is that distinct.

Not surprisingly, like any area predominately populated by immigrants, Miljonprogrammet suburbs have a poor reputation amongst the host culture. Listening to some people talk of them you’d think they were talking about Grozny and they are indeed often nicknamed “the ghettos”. The worst perception of them is that they’re full of Swede-hating Islamic extremists planning the next September 11 attack. At the very least they’re populated by welfare cheating foreigners who refuse to integrate. Tabloid media also like to seize on higher crime statistics and portray them as de facto war zones where even the police are too scared to tread.

Old readers may remember Hammarkullen as the location of the very first construction site I worked at, so unlike many Gothernburgers I’ve actually been to a Miljonprogrammet suburb. I was there everyday for nearly a month and from my experiences I can confidently say it really isn’t that bad. It wouldn’t be my first choice when looking for a flat but if it is the worst part of Gothenburg, then Gothenburg has some very comfortable living standards. I’m not so widely travelled that I can claim to have seen the world’s most down trodden but I have seen plenty of suburbs in cities like London, Paris, Glasgow and Belfast, which are significantly worse. Windows are bordered up or broken, barbed wire lines every fence, rubbish is strewn everywhere, everything is falling apart and in decay, junkies are passed out in the gutter, CCTV cameras monitor your every move and large conveys of heavily armed police are ever present. These are all aspects of really run down areas and Hammarkullen has none of them. I found it was clean, well maintained, and so safe kids played in the street unsupervised. Hammerkullen might not be about to win any architectural awards but it isn’t skid row.

For me the most disturbing aspect of Hammerkullen and Angered is their location as they are quite visibly isolated and cut off from the rest of Gothenburg. When you take the tram from town you actually leave the city as you travel through large industrial areas and forests, without making any stops for a good 10 minutes before finally arriving. Coupled with the fact that its populated exclusively by immigrants, and you’ve created a real sense that this an out-of-sight, out-mind-dumping ground for non-Swedes.

Anyone opposed to migration to Sweden will point to areas like Hammarkullen as proof of their convictions. Higher unemployment and crime, the argument goes, are caused by immigrants who don’t want to work and/or are more inclined to commit crime, while the deep segregation comes down to immigrants’ refusal to integrate. Now I don’t want to get up on my soap box (but I will anyway) but there are some glaring problems with such arguments, not least of all the assumption that immigrants choice to live in Miljonprogrammet suburbs, or that they’re even given a choice. Half the students in my SFI class live in places like Angered or Hammarkullen and I’m yet to meet one who does so by preference. I’ve already been through the perils of the Swedish housing market so I won’t do so again here, but suffice to say that finding a rental property isn’t easy for anyone. If you’re a immigrant, especially one that doesn’t have a job or speak much Swedish, it’s harder still.

I’m yet to see the city where newly arrived immigrants are allowed to move straight into prime real estate. Due to its location and relatively lower living standards compared to the rest of the city, its plain delusional to believe people choice to live in Hammarkullen rather then Örgyte (a wealthy part of Gothenburg). But as one of my classmates said recently, “I need to live somewhere, I can’t sleep on the streets.”

As for integration if you want migrants to integrate it is hardly conducive to force them all to live together in the same suburb on the city’s outskirts, physically detached from the rest of society.

It is easy to look at the Miljonprogrammet housing and see it as a giant ugly mistake. But in the end the Social Democrats did succeed in reaching their aim of creating over a million new homes. (Considering the Swedish tendency to be exact with figures, if the programme had fallen short I wouldn’t put it pass them to rename it the 957,200 programme instead.) Considering Sweden’s population at the time was only seven million (today it is nine million) creating a million homes in only ten years is quite an achievement. The living standards they offered have since been surpassed but at the time they did represent a significant improvement.

The Miljonprogrammet suburbs have also spawned a life and culture of their own. For one they’ve given birth to their own dialect of Swedish, popularly known as Rinkeby Swedish after the Miljonprogrammet suburb of Stockholm. (Rinkeby Swedish is basically Swedish mixed with terms and pronunciations from Middle-Eastern, African and Latin American languages.) Miljonprogrammet suburbs have also produced a host of contemporary Swedish musicians, filmmakers, artists and athletes. Internationally the most famous Miljonprogrammet citizen is Inter Milan footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic who grew up in the means streets of Malmö’s Rosengård.

Given their reputations as ghettos it’s hardly surprising that the Miljonprogrammet has given birth to Sweden’s hip-hop scene. The Latin Kings, one of Sweden’s first commercial successful hip hop acts, became renowned in the 1990s for writing lyrics that were not only in Swedish (until then all Swedish hip hop was in English) but in Rinkeby Swedish. As you can see from this film clip, Miljonprogrammet buildings are a prominent feature and life in the Miljonprogrammet is pretty integral to their image.

Since the 90s The Latin Kings have lost a fair bit of street cred as their front man, the ludicrously named Dogge Doggelito, is now more famous of his segments on lifestyle programs and advertisements for supermarkets (pictured right). It doesn’t help that he dresses like a real-life Ali G without the satire. However the legacy of intertwining hip-hop culture with the Miljonprogrammet continues. Rather then feel ashamed or stigmatised by the hyperbole surrounding the Miljonprogrammet suburbs, hip-hops artists have co-opted it and even glorified it for their own ends. (There are even white middle-class Swedish hip-hop artists have to pretend to be from the Miljonprogrammet.) Below is a more contemporary example, and one more local to Gothenburg. The music isn’t anything special but the clip gives you a good idea of what a Miljonprogrammet suburb looks like.

UPDATE: It has since been brought to my attention that the fifth picture in this blog entry, of the pink flats by the cliffs, isn't a miljonet suburb at all. It's from the island of Lidingö, one of the more posher areas of Stockholm. But I suppose the fact that it can be mistaken for a miljonet suburb is reflective of the egalitarian nature of Swedish housing.