From Iceland — Will 101 Reykjavík Ever Reclaim Its River?

Will 101 Reykjavík Ever Reclaim Its River?

Published July 20, 2011

Will 101 Reykjavík Ever Reclaim Its River?

Lækjargata is one of the main streets of downtown Reykjavík, lying alongside Reykjavík’s pond, Tjörnin, through the centre of town and towards the new concert house Harpan. Not everyone is aware of the fact that a small river—or brook— runs under Lækjargata, and it is from that river that the street takes its name (“River road”). The river was closed in 1911, partly because it smelled badly. But it still flows under the street. Now, ideas have been put forward to open it up again.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Reykjavík still had open sewers where excrement and other unpleasantries flowed freely. Much of this ended in the river, and the smell was sometimes awful. Because of this, Lækjargata was sometimes referred to as “the stinking path.” At this time, water was still pumped out of wells in the town and sometimes there were instances of typhus. Water carriers, mostly old people in rags, such as the fabled character ‘Sæfinnur of the sixteen shoes,’ were considered to be the lowest class of people in the town.
There were also instances of people falling into the river and even drowning, many of course while drunk. As often before and after, drink was a scourge in Iceland—and one of the current arguments against reopening the river is that it may put drunken people in peril.
But there are also happier memories. One of them is a description in ‘Gvendur Jóns,’ a wonderful children’s book recounting the experiences of a group of boys trying to sail on a boat from Tjörnin to the sea, hiding under the small bridges so they wouldn’t be stopped. The book was written by a very interesting man, Hendrik Ottósson. Born in 1897, he became a fervent socialist when he was young. He went to Moscow for a Komintern assembly as early as 1919, meeting many of the luminaries of the communist movement.
But when Stalinism took over he was not considered reliable enough. He married a Jewish fugitive to save her from the Nazis, and when the British forces occupied Iceland in 1940 he volunteered to work for them as an intelligence agent despite his communist past—this was the time of the Hitler/Stalin pact—such was his loathing of Nazism.
Hendrik Ottósson’s books about the exploits of a group of boys in the western part of Reykjavík and around the harbor in the first years of the 20th century are classics—but sadly they are a bit forgotten.
The most famous building in Lækjargata is the old Reykjavík college. The school claims that its origins lie as far back as 1056, when a school was established at the bishop’s seat in Skálholt. It was moved to Reykjavík in 1786 and its present building was built in 1846. The school was formerly referred to as The Latin School, but know it is called Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík—or simply MR. Now it is just a normal junior college, a school among other schools, but for a long time it used to be the place where the country’s elite got its education—and its self image.  Most of the prime ministers and presidents of Iceland studied there. There has always been a certain element of snobbishness surrounding MR—and there are instances of men never really graduating from it.
Among its students are two Nobel Prize winners, although neither of them can be considered a model pupil. One is Niels Finsen, a Faeroese/Danish physician who received the prize for medicine in 1903. He was by no means an outstanding student. The other is Halldór K. Laxness who got the Nobel Prize in literature in 1955. Indeed, Laxness was a drop out—he left the school at age seventeen, never to return.
There are famous episodes in the history of the building. The most quoted is a meeting between the newly resurrected parliament and the Danish authorities in 1851, when the Icelanders, led by independence hero Jón Sigurðsson, revolted, shouting: “We all protest!”
Another incident was influenced by the revolutionary movements in Europe in 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations. This episode is generally referred to as the pereat. The school authorities wanted to force the students to join an abstinence club. They considered this an infringement on their personal freedom and reacted by shouting the latin word “pereat”—perish—at the schoolmaster, Sveinbjörn Egilsson. He retired after the incident and died not long after. Otherwise Sveinbjörn was a gentle humanist, much admired, who translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into beautiful Icelandic—the translations are considered to be absolute gems—as well as writing lovely children’s poems that are still recited.
It is an irony that Steingrímur Thorsteinsson, one of the leaders of the pereat, who promptly got kicked out of school, later became a schoolmaster of MR himself—as well as being a poet and a translator of Shakespeare and the ‘One Thousand And One Nights’ anthology.
A little north of MR you will find a row of old houses, generally referred to as Bernhöftstorfan, named after the bakery of Bernhöft that once stood on the corner. At that time Bankastræti (“Bank Street”), which runs down the hill to Lækjargata, was named Bakarabrekka (“Baker’s Hill”). Now it is jokingly referred to as ‘Fleece Street’ due to the numerous shops selling outdoor clothing for tourists that have sprung up in the last years. After the collapse of 2008, fleece is more popular in Iceland than the hated banks.
The houses in the Bernhöftstorfa are some of the oldest ones in Reykjavík, built in an old Scandinavian style. For a long time the city authorities wanted to remove all that remained of old Reykjavík, and there were plans to tear down these houses and build a modernist structure instead. It was not until the late 1970s that the houses were finally saved and rebuilt, after protests, led by (among others) Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who later became President of Iceland.
If you cross Bankastræti towards the north you will find a rather small but dignified house, built in a very Danish style. This is the office of the Prime Minister, and its current resident is Social Democrat Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. The house was built in 1759, originally as a prison, commonly referred to as Múrinn (“The Wall”). At that time most Icelandic criminals—those who were not executed—were sent to do hard labour at the Bremerholm Prison in Copenhagen. The house later became the seat of the Danish governor. It was there that the sovereignty of Iceland was proclaimed on December 1, 1918, a rather sombre day, for the Spanish influenza had ravaged the town, killing a lot of people.
There are two statues in front of the house. One is of Hannes Hafstein, the first Icelandic Prime Minister, and there is also a statue of a man with something in his hand. Some children think it might be a gun, to others it seems like a rolled up newspaper. But, no, this is the Danish king, Christian IX, handing the first constitution to Iceland in 1874, on the thousand year anniversary of the settlement of the country. “With a scroll of freedom in his fatherly hand,” as it says in a poem from that time. Iceland had been under Norwegian and later Danish kings since 1262 but this was the first time one of them visited the country.
King Christian IX has been known as “the father-in-law of Europe” for his children married into other royal houses. Among his direct male descendants are the heirs to the British throne, Prince Charles and his son Prince William.
Across Lækjargata we have the square called Lækjartorg. This used to be a main thoroughfare until the early 1970s, with buses stopping there and all sorts of shops surrounding the square. Later it fell into disrepair, but now it is maybe seeing better days with a renovation project that includes the rebuilding of some old houses that burned down in a great fire in 2007.  
But the golden days of shopping are long gone in Lækjartorg—the face of the square is rather that of the gloomy court house. But once up on a time, around the turn of the 20th century, there stood the shopping house of Thomsen. There are glittering descriptions of it, it had a special department for wine, for cigars and shoes—and Thomsen was also the man who imported the first motorcar to Iceland in 1904. It was not a great success at the time.
Thomsen was one of a group of Danish merchants who traded in Iceland. When the movement for independence grew they started to become unpopular and gradually many of them left. Thomsens magasín, as it was called, closed during World War I and its large timber building on Lækjartorg was finally torn down in 1961.
After this trade declined, Icelanders were not very savvy in matters of commerce. They have also had a great penchant for all sorts of trade restrictions, tariffs and barriers, so gradually the country entered a long period when consumer goods were scarce and rationing was prevalent. And now, a century after Thomsen, currency restrictions are back in order in Iceland as a result of the economic crash.
Lækjartorg has also been a venue for meetings and demonstrations, the most famous of which being on October 24, 1974, when the square and its surrounding streets filled with women who were striking to protest against inequality. Most of the female population of the country took part in this event—which is definitely one of the most important in the history of the women’s movement in Iceland.
Now we have The Harp at the furthest end of Lækjargata, not far from where the old coal crane used to stand until 1968. The building of the concert house really calls for the beautification of Lækjargata. It is now a big traffic artery, but it would be best if most of the car traffic was directed elsewhere. Plans have been drawn up to open the river again and planting trees alongside its banks. Surely this is the future of this old, historic street. 

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