More than two years after an article on the same topic, Gellerup resident and activist Aysha Amin provides us with an update on the gradual implementation of racist spatial policies applied to the residential neighborhoods officially called “ghettos” in Denmark.
As introduced in my original article “Being a Percentage rather than a Human Being” in The Funambulist 13 (March-April 2017), Gellerup is a residential neighborhood in the west side of Aarhus, and is part of the housing association Brabrand Boligforening, one of the biggest and most infamous housing associations in Denmark. All housing in Gellerup is made by a unique Danish housing model called “Almene Boliger,” which translates as non-profit housing organizations that focus on inexpensive and good quality housing for everyone. Part of the low rent we pay goes to a national fund, which then gets distributed across housing organizations for renovation and other necessities to maintain a residential area.
Due to the rise of the right wing and neoliberal policies in popularity for the past 10 years, as well as a new controversial law package from 2018, the non-profit residential model is under threat of liquidation, where family-friendly non-profit housing can only fill 40% of a residential area before January 1, 2030. Gellerup has been on the so called “Ghetto-List” of Denmark, since the list first made its headlines in 2010, making it a so-called “Hard Ghetto.” The list gets updated annually on December 1.
The criteria according to the new list, defines a residential area as “disadvantaged” when a non-profit housing area has two out of four criteria checked off. Some of the criteria are if 40% of residents in the age group of 18-64 have no link to the job market or education for the past two years, and if an area is composed of residents with crime convictions that are minimum three times the country’s average in the past two years. A ghetto area is categorized as a “disadvantaged” non-profit housing area with a minimum of 1,000 residents, with 50% immigrants or their descendants, all from non-Western ethnicities. The newest addition, the “Hard Ghetto” typology designates an area, which has met the criteria of being a ghetto for a minimum of four years. Being a Hard Ghetto allows the state to undergo a full takeover of the affected area and liquidate it by evicting contracts and implementing new changes.
Just as the updated Ghetto List was released in 2018, the government also mentioned that they will bring out a new solution package targeting areas they judge as “culturally different” to Danish society. There will also be harder consequences due to the Lars Løkke government’s law package against “parallel societies” in Denmark, which was revealed in his 2018 New Year’s prime minister speech as a set of new laws and actions to combat non-profit residential housing areas on the Hard Ghetto-list. The reason being, of course, that these ghetto communities seem to live in parallel societies as opposed to the white Danish society.
The state’s “Parallel Society Package,” which is a direct and racist attack on communities of color, makes it possible to evict current tenants with full authority and liquidate the district of a housing association to get them off the government’s self-made ghetto list. Ironically the government that sets these lists holds a certain idea and fear that the people living in these areas — that those of non-Western and immigrant backgrounds are dangerous and a plague to society. Nobody wants to be on the list. Having the correct postal code can really help you out with interacting with the rest of Aarhus, or at least not being seen as an exotic survivor. Saying you are from Gellerup or Bispehaven will instantly place a bunch of labels on you upon first meetings.
This is why the housing association’s master plan worked so hard to clear the image that Gellerup is an unwanted and dangerous place as per its mainstream representation. Since the beginning of the masterplan in 2013, five residential buildings were demolished to make way for new infrastructure meant to “open up” the area, thus inviting more white Danes from the inner city into Gellerup to “increase the social diversity” of the area — even though the neighborhood already had 80 different nationalities. So that act of implementing “diversity” was actually more to increase white Danish homogeneity and gentrification into the “non-Western” area. Constructing brightly lit boulevards and a police station at the end of the road makes the ghetto safe and pleasant to walk in, when you are new to the place.
Despite many controversies and scandals, the original master plan was actually slowly heading towards the right direction, according to some locals, such as lower crime rates and new road infrastructure. This was until we hit June 2018, when the city council of Aarhus decided, with no warning or involvement of the local community, to further demolish nine buildings. Around 1,000 people were evicted from their legal homes, a statement that wanted to show that Aarhus doesn’t take lightly to those living in so-called “parallel societies.”
Part of the social engineering and early steps towards gentrification is to turn Gellerup into a more “attractive” part of Aarhus, which inevitably involves erasure of some local spaces by dividing Gellerup into three districts with new names that white Danes know and love. This includes the main boulevard with the police station at the end of the road that I described before — Karen Blixens Boulevard — taking the name of a Danish author, previously a slave-owner in Kenya. There are now billboards and posters promoting Gellerup as an attractive place for people to move in, but with only white-appearing Danish people on them. There are also locally-financed takeovers and rebranding initiatives to house “hands-on entrepreneurs” from the inner city.
Creatives and architects wants to sell their properties in the inner city to buy apartments in Gellerup, and start up creative collectives. When asked if they are aware it is a residential area with tenants living and brewing the local culture since the 1990s, they simply reply that they just want to be part of the “interesting change” that Gellerup is going through. A change that is happening fast and without local involvement.
There is a national mobilization happening called Almen Modstand, which emerged from activist work from the west side of Aarhus after the city council’s announcement on demolishing several residential buildings. I was part of the crew from Aarhus West that organized actions and produced recordings from our phones which we later uploaded online on social media. After a period of grass-roots activism, we decided to use our platform and create more art-based actions in collaboration with locals and organizations outside of Gellerup and the affected areas. That is when the idea of a Demolition Tour performance by Andromeda 8220 started.
One of the actions was a guided tour imitating the aforementioned masterplan in Gellerup’s guided tours, but instead of talking about all the great changes that is to come, thanks to the masterplan, the Demolition Tour we did was filter free and radical in the sense that we addressed which buildings were mentioned in the new demolition plan and allowed a space for frustration and worry to be voiced and shared. It became an inclusive safe space inviting informative performance to spread awareness of the state of our housing and discrimination. It resulted in an Aarhus-based group forming and taking part in the Almen Modstan movement –– a national resistance group against the ghetto list, that works on reclaiming the rights of citizens living in non-profit housing.
When the locals from Gellerup and Bispehaven found out that a total of 15 buildings in the west side of Aarhus were to be demolished –– around 1,000 homes with mostly people of color being forced to move away –– they started resisting by organising events across their neighborhoods, such as screening films and hosting discussion evenings under the name “Vest for Paradis.” They hold potluck dinners, locally-made exhibitions, panel debates, artist talks, and t-shirt making workshops. Hosting conversations around architecture, DIY culture, urban development, representation and much more, a sense of security in the resistance is made with a direct result. The crew is called Aarhus Vest Gruppen. They consist of “Bispehavens Initiativ Gruppen,” an event and education-based group housed in a demolition-
threatened basement, and Andromeda 8220, a critical art and culture platform, which houses the food cooperative Smag à la Gellerup and collaborates with CAFx (Aarhus Architecture Festival).
These two districts work together today despite the stereotypical image of rivalry presented for many years by the media, to promote a more nuanced image of representation across the “Hard-Ghetto” list, and to bring up topics that can be discussed locally and globally that highlight the diversity of these areas. We are cultural power houses with go-hard courage, with the intention of taking up discussions and healing together even with our internalized difficulties. Stay tuned. ■