Being a Percentage, Rather Than a Human Being in Denmark



In most Western countries, the word “ghetto” tends to invoke a long history of anti-Semitism and racism, but in Denmark the term is not typically met with discomfort or offense. This has led to people throwing it around as they please. The government has for years even maintained an official “Ghetto List” of supposedly troubled neighborhoods without seeming to notice the parallels in history. For the neighborhood of Gellerup in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, being perennially featured at the top of this list has intensely stigmatized both the area and its inhabitants. Though the word is supposedly a harmless classification, calling a neighborhood like Gellerup a ghetto makes residents like myself worth less in the eyes of the state than those who live elsewhere.

To make it onto Denmark’s Ghetto List, a neighborhood is judged according to five criteria, including the percentage of residents who are not legally employed, who immigrated or are descended from non-Western countries, and who were previously convicted for general crimes or possession of guns or narcotics. Your skin color and name suddenly imply whether or not you’re improving or degrading your neighborhood. You become a percentage rather than a human being.

For housing associations, the local organizations which manage publicly owned residential buildings, there can actually be a huge financial incentive to having property in a neighborhood on the Ghetto List. Because being named to the list means having access to government grants for rebuilding, many associations allow their neighborhoods to slide into decay rather than spending money of their own on updates and repairs, despite what this means for us residents.

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The neighborhood of Gellerup, experiencing the effects of gentrification. / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (2017).

The housing association Brabrand Boligforening is a perfect example of how stigmatization is structuralized in Denmark. It is one of the country’s biggest housing associations, and often sees its neighborhoods end up on the Ghetto List. As manager of the properties in Gellerup, it is overseeing Helhedsplan Gellerup, the largest urban renewal project in the country, which aims to turn the “vulnerable and exposed residential area into an attractive district of Aarhus.” Though without the Ghetto List, the plan and its project leaders would have no financial backing. Thus, those who enjoy the status of full citizenship benefit from the plight of the so-called “ghetto” and its inhabitants.

Gellerup in the 1970s and the Ideology of Knud Blach Petersen ///
Gellerup was built in the early 1970s to accommodate, in majority, middle to upper-class white traditional Danish families. The idea of the architect Knud Blach Petersen was to create a safe residential area where there was no need to go outside of the community. Residents would have a shopping mall, a church, an outdoor area to play, kindergartens, schools, and so on. The apartments, still an architectural attraction, were built in a functional manner, and space and light were highly valued.

When the oil crisis hit and the movement for neighborhoods of single-family villas was introduced, the apartments in Gellerup seemed too expensive and were deemed unworthy of investment. That is, until the people of color came.

The arrival in the 1990s of refugees and immigrants from Kuwait, Iraq, Palestine, and Somalia was deemed by some as the death of the “original” Gellerup, while others saw in the burgeoning cultural diversity a uniqueness to be celebrated. For those who considered this change a downfall, their reasoning was simple: we from non-Western countries were making Gellerup a target for the Ghetto List.

Gellerup is part of a traditional Danish public housing association. Every inhabitant’s rent payment ends up in shared savings, which are then used for maintaining the area’s appearance and social needs. That means every citizen in Gellerup can decide what will happen in the neighborhood, as well as who is elected onto the local committee. In other words, according to the law, we the inhabitants are the ones who should have the final say over what happens to the buildings we live in.

Who Is the Masterplan For ? ///
The idea to attract more “average” Danish tenants — meaning white families and students, and of higher economic standing — has been central to the plan to make Gellerup more attractive. Yet despite this being more or less the audience for whom the original buildings were constructed, the housing blocks have since become synonymous with Denmark’s cultural dilution by outsiders. Their importance as modern architectural treasures is hardly as important to local officials as recasting Aarhus as an elite Western society. And so, rather than be repaired, the buildings are being systematically demolished. The five buildings already demolished make us, the locals, worry if there will be anything left, and whether our suggestions are even being taken into consideration; our complaints about dysfunctional traffic lights and streetlamps on the newly constructed boulevard often go unanswered.

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The neighborhood of Gellerup, experiencing the effects of gentrification. / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (2017).

Another thing the masterplan aims to do is prevent Gellerup’s young from turning into criminals, as well as to keep the more resourceful inhabitants from moving elsewhere. But a point that’s overlooked is that those with education and training leave Gellerup simply because there are no jobs for them. Almost every high paying job in the neighborhood is awarded to non-residents. Gellerup is known for having strong volunteer associations, so at best, it’s simply a matter of habit and ignorance that stops those in power from allowing us to volunteer and have more influence over who our neighbors are.

Holding back the long-time renters and volunteer workers while blaming them for being unemployed is degrading, especially when unrelated consultants, from outside of Gellerup, are hired instead and paid handsomely. Receiving a proper work contract or being able to take ownership over an issue has heavy significance. Being scolded from above when you need help is a low-key and abusive misuse of power. It doesn’t help to mitigate the stigma workers from the neighborhood experience; on the contrary, it just worsens the social environment within the community because of the lack of autonomy and representation.

The housing association of Gellerup advertises on their website a neighborhood that is almost completely white. In reality, the opposite is true; Gellerup is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. The importance of unapologetic, realistic representation and communication within a community is crucial to combat its stigmatization. By labeling us as the “problem” to push away through gentrification, instead of considering us to be equal citizens, colored neighborhoods in Denmark will continuously face this plight.

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The neighborhood of Gellerup, experiencing the effects of gentrification. / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (2017).

Looking on the bright side, of the 7,000 inhabitants of Gellerup today, 40% are below the age of 18. Its many new graduates each year offer a lot of potential to Danish society. With a majority of non-Western inhabitants, comprising 80 different nationalities, the neighborhood is part of a strong international network. That network became very visible back in 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten began printing cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed, to the dismay of Muslims around the world. Imagine if instead Denmark acknowledged and celebrated its cultural diversity, rather than mocking the heritage of its most marginalized inhabitants.

The way Gellerup is structurally represented by statistics can lead to many misconceptions. The majority of us may have non-Western backgrounds, but we are Danish citizens. What is a statistic like this supposed to prove? That having a non-Western background is shameful?

Marketing, Racism, and Gentrification ///
Why is there a need to make Gellerup “attractive,” and for whom? We residents obviously celebrate our own cultures, but are made to feel ashamed of them at the same time because of the degrading implication that we have to be “fixed,” that we aren’t “attractive” already.

Is gentrification even such a good thing? The only good result — decreased crime rates — is probably only due to forcing out low-income residents, whose minor offenses are directly connected to their desperation. The measures to keep the price of rent from rising will last only for the next five years, and what happens after has not yet been decided.

Most social projects in Gellerup usually focus on addressing stereotypical issues, like rescuing “criminal” boys or “freeing” Muslim women, rather than further developing what we are already good at. This condescension is very problematic, because when people hear about these projects in Gellerup it only furthers the narrative that the neighborhood needs to be saved by the white man.

Can integration be a mutual process between the inhabitants of Gellerup and the rest of Aarhus? While the masterplan has paved the way for some good initiatives, such as a new boulevard making the interior roads more accessible to the public, as well as an effort to make people hired from the outside connect and collaborate with locals, it’s important to state this plainly: the masterplan is not the savior of Gellerup. Claiming that it is means we will never be able to shed our reputation for being helpless and unwilling to take ownership and responsibility.

Reclaiming Gellerup ///

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The neighborhood of Gellerup, experiencing the effects of gentrification. / Photographs by Léopold Lambert (2017).

There are alternative initiatives for reclaiming Gellerup, such as the art gallery and studio Andromeda. Founded by a group of young Gellerup resident artists, the space is a way to show the elitist art scene of Aarhus that we’ve had enough of always having to fit in. Local artists can create their own workshops, exhibitions, parties, and events to inspire others with the power of art. Gellerup Museum, a local historical museum operating on the 6th floor of an apartment building, was founded by a group of volunteers to preserve the memory of the old Gellerup. The space has created an opportunity for residents to collaborate on exhibitions with the museum. Smag à la Gellerup, a cooperative based on showcasing and mapping the neighborhood’s various food cultures, posts short recipe videos on Facebook and sells street food every Monday as a way for people to meet. Using food as its main resource, the cooperative supports locals and independent businesses. The amazing thing about these initiatives is that everything is done by working closely with the residents. The fact that these projects have started in and been powered by people from Gellerup shows that the neighborhood is not a problem that needs to be fixed, that engaging the local community is the only way to put an end to structural stigmatization, rather than simply displace it elsewhere.

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Concert of local rappers such as Cha-D, Marwan, Johnson and USO in Gellerup for the opening of the new road, Karen Blixens Boulevard in August 2016. / Photograph by La Familia.

To those in the Danish government and the marketing committees overseeing the neighborhood’s masterplan — highlight the diversity and uniqueness of Gellerup instead of blaming us for its decay. Defer to us, or at least take us into consideration, when planning architectural changes and filling jobs, instead of always making the wealthy white majority your main priority.

Give credit and respect to the locals who have put hard work into their community long before the masterplan came along to “save the area.” It was local workers who constructed Gellerup’s most iconic buildings in the early 1970s. It was them in the 1990s who took the initiative to satisfy the demand for diversity within the local food culture, helping create the neighborhood bazaar that now draws in thousands of visitors every week.

To my fellow residents, here’s to we who are suitable for the job but get rejected anyway; to colonizing the colonizer by reclaiming ownership and power in our neighborhood; to reclaiming ownership as fully enfranchised Danes, instead of allowing the power to be taken away from us; to stopping the degradation of people by the Ghetto List for the financial and political agenda of others; to reclaiming the ghetto and saying fuck off to capitalism, gentrification, and outdated, shortsighted rescue projects concocted by white saviors. Here’s to putting an end to our structuralized stigmatization in Gellerup.