If you have been wondering whether an old school ghetto can be found in Reykjavík, the answer is ‘sort of.’ What Icelanders refer to as their ‘ghetto’ is more commonly referred to as Breiðholt, a neighbourhood in the east part of the city. Breiðholt, built from 1967–1982, is Iceland’s clearest example of the dominant policy after the Second World War: to quickly construct cheap apartments, specially targeted at the working class.
Before becoming a suburb, Breiðholt (literally: “Wide Hill”) was a farmland, whose main building was a classical Icelandic turf house. In the year 1900, when Reykjavík was inhabited by a total of 6.667 souls, Breiðholt was still part of the countryside, and it took the farmers one day to walk to the city and back.
The history of the suburb Breiðholt started in 1960. That year, the city of Reykjavík started making a new urban plan to follow the increase in population following World War II. The plan was characterised by an emphasis of private car ownership, and the suburbs were born.
Breiðholt has from the start been Reykjavík’s most populated district. It is furthermore the district that has received the most negative press coverage through the years. And the reason is? Well, when Breiðholt was in process, the government was settling years-long conflicts between the working class union, employers, and itself, regarding salary and benefits. In the end, they agreed that the government would take care of building apartments for low income families for the next years to come. A committee was established which in the end finished building apartments for almost 50% of the inhabitants in Breiðholt.
THE THREE STAGES OF A “GHETTO”
When Icelanders refer to Breiðholt, they are actually talking about three quarters designed with three different ideologies: Neðra-Breiðholt (“Lower-Breiðholt”: 1967–1973), Efra-Breiðholt (“Upper-Breiðholt”: 1970–1982), and Seljahverfi (1974–1982).
Neðra-Breiðholt is characterised by U-shaped-apartment buildings with a garden in the middle for happy people inhabiting happy suburbs. The committee built almost 300 apartments in Neðra-Breiðholt, but it had nothing to do with the quarter’s design.
The next quarter to be built was Efra-Breiðholt. There, the committee had total freedom to do what they wanted to do. They felt that the corners in the U-shaped apartment building in Neðra-Breiðholt had been too costly. With that in mind it was decided to make houses with as few corners as possible; or in other words, to make houses as long as possible. Behind these decisions was also the love for technology. For the first time in Iceland, moveable construction cranes were available to use. And what did Icelanders do with moveable construction cranes? They kept going and ended up with the longest house ever been built in Iceland: 320 m long, with total of twenty staircases, for 7–800 people. This house is located in Norðurfell and soon acquired the nick-name ‘Langavitleysa (“Long Nonsense”), still in use. When the building committee was dissolved in 1983, around 6.000 people lived in apartments that the committee had built—at that time the entire population of Breiðholt numbered 15.000.
Seljahverfi was constructed from 1974–1982. It has always been the little sister of the two other neighborhoods, innocent and cute. In Seljahverfi, factors such as economic chaos and hyperinflation somehow directed middle-class people into building huge villas that now characterise the quarter.
HOW CAN WE NORMALISE IT?
Despite its important part in eliminate unsuitable housing in Reykjavík, Breiðholt received criticism early on. Efra-Breiðholt got a particularly bad reputation, since there was a really high rate of low income families and a great number of single parents living there. In 1977, 15% of single parents in Reykjavík lived in this area—indeed, in some apartment buildings weren’t inhabited by a single adult male.
These circumstances were a source for various stories that ended up in the main newspapers in Iceland.
Journalists were active in writing articles about vandalism in Breiðholt, and little by little Breiðholt gained a reputation for being Reykjavík’s ‘ghetto.’ Efra-Breiðholt always got the most attention in the media, and it is there where the City of Reykjavík put the most effort in social improvements. The neighborhood was thought to be homogeneous, both in terms of the buildings and the people living there. Actual residents in Breiðholt often lied about where they lived, and people in other neighborhoods outside Breiðholt were terrified of going there.
Politicians got nervous and felt the need to “fix” the suburb afterwards to meet people’s “social and cultural needs.” Money was put into the first teenage social center in Iceland (Fellahellir), a sports club was established (Leiknir), the only culture house outside the city centre was built (Gerðuberg), the first community college in Iceland was established (Fjölbrautarskólinn í Breiðholti), and so on.
Despite of the “ghetto” stamp Breiðholt was slapped with in the ’80s, its reality did not conform to its image. In Reykjavík’s most populated neighbourhood, which included all the city’s social housing, there were also the fewest incidents of crimes per capita. In the period 1967–1974, a total of 62 serious crimes were committed in Iceland, and only one of those crimes was committed in Breiðholt.
CAN WE PLEASE ELIMINATE THE CREATIVE ENERGY?
From the very beginning there was a strong counter-culture scene connected to Breiðholt. The neighborhood was full of children and teenagers in this new neighborhood in the middle of nowhere (with almost no public transportation)—in Efra-Breiðholt, less than 7% of the inhabitants were 65 years old or older, while 54.8% of the inhabitants were under the age of 22. It was also the time when Iceland’s punk scene was in formation. It became particularly strong and prominent in Breiðholt.
A high quality music-studio was bought for the youth centre Fellahellir. The centre organised outdoor concerts every year, entitled ‘RykkRokk,’ where young artists played music that usually did not see public release or radio play. Many of the bands that performed at these concerts would go on to become leading groups in Iceland. The studio was for long time one of the best recording studios in Iceland, and a cheap one: a crucial factor for allowing teenage-bands to make their recordings. Many great bands recorded in this studio, including fabled pop group The Sugarcubes.
A lot of great minds and artists in Iceland have lived in Breiðholt. One should also mention that with the ’70s private car policy, there were a lot of empty garages that became perfect rehearsal places for young teenagers to make some noise.
Breiðholt’s image as a “ghetto” still lives a good life, and Breiðholt is still under attack—now because of a different kind of segregation. In Breiðholt, 10,2% of the inhabitants have non-Icelandic nationalities compared to 8.1% for Reykjavík as a whole.
Breiðholt is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Reykjavík, where counter-culture is actively created. It has always had a unique position in Reykjavík and still has.
Do yourself a favor. Take a ride to Breiðholt and breathe the melancholic-attractive-fresh-angry-beautiful-creative-energy that is built in the walls. The experience will leave you understanding Reykjavík a tad better!