Being a Percentage, Rather Than a Human Being in Denmark

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Article published in The Funambulist 13 (September-October 2017) Queers, Feminists and Interiors. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.

Amin Funambulist 1
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.