The social housing community AKB Lundtoftegade in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district is a small world in itself. More than two thousand residents spanning approximately forty nationalities live in the 699 apartments located in large high-rises fenced in by a concrete overpass on one side and the heavy traffic of Lundtoftegade on the other. Here you will find small parks, playgrounds, a bingo club, a cat society, as well as an ocean of small semi-secret clubs tucked away in the many basement rooms found on the estate. You will find a problem here, too.
Since 2018, when the criteria for what are classified as “ghetto areas” were made stricter in Denmark, the AKB Lundtoftegade estate has been on the so-called ghetto list. And for just about the same time, a range of initiatives – renovations, art, resident involvement schemes, and more – have sought to wrestle the area from this stigmatising classification.
Since 2010, Danish authorities have compiled and published lists of ghetto areas, which now number twenty-eight social housing estates all over the country. At the launch of the latest, rather stricter, version of the “parallel society” package, which took place in the community centre in Mjølnerparken in 2018, then-Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said: “We must set up a new goal of abolishing the ghettos completely. In some places, this will be done by breaking up the concrete, tearing down the buildings, scattering the occupants, and rehousing them in different areas. Elsewhere, it will be done by taking clear control of who moves in. We must close the gaps currently found on the map of Denmark.”
The bottom line is that if a residential area ends up on the ghetto list, this may prompt the demolition of homes, the sale of homes to private owners, and the conversion of social housing into homes for the elderly and young people. In addition, a number of other measures may be taken, such as requiring that all children must attend a childcare institution, or that residents may incur double punishment for certain crimes.
“There should be no doubt that we think what’s happening to us is deeply unfair and has fatal consequences,” says the chairman of the residents’ organisation, Søren-Emil Schütt. “We have been hard at work on all the various political decision-making platforms to affect the outcome. We have listened to what Kaare Dybvad [the Social Democratic minister responsible for housing] has said and have tried to comply, but we’ve found that he does not care. We have been on the ghetto list for two years, and the new ghetto list might make it three. If we end up being on the list for four years, that means that 60 per cent of our neighbours will have to be evicted from their homes because of unsubstantiated professional criteria that are also deeply discriminatory and racist. That is the realpolitik of this situation.”
Schütt, who holds a master’s degree in pedagogical philosophy, joins artists Mette Nisgaard Larsen and Karoline W. Andersen in making up the exhibition project Til Vægs (Up Against the Wall), which is now in its fourth year of showing video works on seven outdoor screens hung on the façades of various Lundtoftegade blocks. In recent months, Til Vægs, acting in collaboration with artist Marie Louise Vittrup Andersen, has been working on a project that aims to heal the residential area. The initiatives include huge banners hanging on the Lundtoftegade estate’s façades, and Thursday workshops for neighbourhood children, who produced masks for Sunday’s parade.
A long procession of masked people took part in a ritual walk around the entire residential area, holding up forty large hand-embroidered banners and trailing coloured smoke. The parade mainly consisted of residents, but among them were also local artists, including Hannah Anbert and Anna Bak, who contributed costumes and masks, and Felia Gram, who created a sound work that played from bicycle trailers. A shamanic-looking figure, artist Yahya Chouchen, created a ring of sugar on the ground and began an insistent drum dance, while at the edge of the parade Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen handed out lemons with encouraging messages. There was a general mood of redemption among the relatively few spectators who found their way to Nørrebro that cold November day. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the organisers asked people interested in joining to instead follow the parade via a live stream on the internet.
“People expect an area like Lundtoftegade to be figuratively down at heel, and the classic response among communities on the ghetto list might be to get angry,” said Nisgaard Larsen. “We have talked a lot about how, if you find yourself constricted within a framework you’ve not defined yourself or have any way of escaping, then defining a new framework is a great way to go. In this case, that new framework is sensuous and artistic. For me, it’s about countering something hard with heart, with something soft. Here, you will find plant-dyed, hand-embroidered fabrics, and while the masks might seem quite militant at first glance, they were actually drawn by children. We ordered thirty of the banners, which were sewn by local women from ethnic minorities. We are absolutely serious about this, but we also wanted to do something that the artists and the residents would have fun being part of.”
The ghetto list actually comprises three different lists. In order for a social housing area to be included on the list of vulnerable housing areas, it must meet two of four criteria: 40 per cent of its residents aged 18–60 are neither working nor enrolled in any education; the proportion of former convicts is more than three times the national average; the proportion of residents aged 30–59 who only have a primary school education is greater than 60 per cent; and the average income among residents aged 15–64 is about half of the region’s average. In addition, if an estate is on the list of ghetto areas – as Lundtoftegade is – more than 50 per cent of the residents are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from non-Western countries. Lastly, if an area finds itself on the ghetto list for four consecutive years, it will be transferred to the list of so-called “hard ghetto areas,” which may mean that some residents will be forcibly relocated.
In 2018, when the AKB Lundtoftegade estate ended up on the list of ghetto areas, the criteria were made considerably stricter. At that point, it was emphasised that only degrees and diplomas taken or approved in Denmark are considered valid, a fact which, according to critics of the legislation, meant that the ethnicity criterion doubled in severity. Put differently, while someone might be a doctor or engineer in Iran or Lebanon, in Danish statistics they count as having no education. This applies to a substantial number of the immigrant groups in the areas in question. At the same time, the fact that the statistics are only kept for 30–59 year-olds means that even if the number of young people attending high school goes up in an area, this will have no immediate effect on the area’s place on the list, as high school students are predominantly under 30 years of age.
Moreover, the crime criterion also became significantly stricter. In 2010, calculations were made according to the number of convicts per thousand inhabitants, but today the calculations are measured relative to the national average. If previous criteria had been retained, only two out of the twenty-five qualifying residential areas in 2010 would still be on the ghetto list today.
This development has been criticised by Amnesty International, the Institute for Human Rights, and the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights (CESCR), among others. Critics have described the Danish parallel society package – of which the ghetto list is a part – as an example of “discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin and nationality.”
The Danish Social Workers’ Association has also criticised the use of the word “ghetto,” which harks back to medieval Italy, where the Catholic Church required Jews to live in specific and carefully demarcated residential areas. Since then, the concept has been associated with the Jewish ghettos in Poland during World War II, and with the poor Black residential areas arising as a result of racial segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. In fact, Denmark is the only country in the West where the state describes its own housing areas as “ghettos.”
When the last plumes of brightly coloured smoke had wafted away from Lundtoftegade, and people had gone indoors to get warm, the final part of the healing was initiated. Healers from all over the world – from Tunisia to Greenland, from northern Norway to Santa Fe – joined each other at 20:00 for a remote healing session, sending positive vibes towards Lundtoftegade prior to the publication of the latest version of the ghetto list.
For the people of Til Vægs, there was no doubt about which outcome they hoped for:
“For me, this is about us being in a desperate situation. We have our backs up against the wall, so we are looking for an alternative outlook on the reality we find ourselves in. That is what we’ve seen happening today. We have engaged major cultural institutions, including the National Museum of Denmark and Copenhagen Contemporary, in an ongoing dialogue and gotten them to speak our language – because we have changed the language being used. We are not talking about racist legislation – we are putting something else in plain view, parading it for all to see. For me, art is about showing worlds that are different from the world you thought you were in. This work is deeply rooted in Lundtoftegade, but tonight it spans the whole world,” Schütt explained.
1 December, 14.30: The ghetto list 2020 has just been revealed. Whereas last year’s list contained twenty-eight ‘ghetto areas’, the total number on the new list is fifteen. AKB Lundtoftegade is no longer on the list.