Outside In: The Grünerløkka Effect

Today, Grünerløkka is one of Oslo’s most popular areas for young families and hipsters, and a favourite haunt for students. Great cafés, bars and restaurants as well as alternative events, shops and people have made the area the coolest bit of Oslo in recent years. Just twenty years ago, however, Grünerløkka was very different. In this first episode of Outside In, we take a look at how international migrants helped to completely transform the area, and whether Grünerløkka now faces the prospect of becoming too popular for its own good.

“Hip”, “cool” and “young” are the words which sprang to mind when we asked the borough’s residents and visitors to describe their home today. If anyone had asked that question thirty years ago, the answer would have been entirely different. As one of the easterm boroughs of Oslo, Grünerløkka was a traditional working-class district with a rich history of industry, whose mills and factories were powered by the rivers and waterways you still see today.

Skjermbilde 2015-12-17 kl. 16.58.28

Like the waterways, most of Grünerløkka’s industrial infrastructure is still going strong, transformed into hip venues and outlets like Blå and Schous Microbrewery. The working-class people who used to inhabit the borough, however, have largely disappeared.
– All these beautiful old buildings used to be full of the people who worked in the area and had lived here for generations, said one man we spoke to. “The area had a proud, hardworking population.”

By the ‘80s, however, with traditional industries closing down in Oslo and jobs disappearing, the area had fallen into disrepair.
– When I moved here in 1991, taxis actually refused to stop here, Jarl W. Alnæs, leader of the Liberal Party in Grünerløkka and of the District Planning Committee, recollects. “We still had three hundred flats with outdoor toilets – in the centre of Oslo. But things were starting to change…”

The 1980s and ‘90s saw an influx of international migrants into Grünerløkka and other boroughs in eastern Oslo. Although inevitable tensions and social issues did arise, Grünerløkka’s strong traditional community spirit and conscious efforts by the local Council for Diversity and Integration led to a fusion of the “old” Grünerløkka spirit with the new physical and cultural influences that the migrants brought along, leading the borough to reinvent itself to a much greater extent than its neighbouring districts.

New flavours, sights and sounds revitalised the area and invited Oslo residents to try out new experiences that they could otherwise only encounter on holidays abroad. On a broader level, the multicultural nature of Grünerløkka began to challenge the highly homogenous nature of Norwegian society.

Grünerløkka’s openness and the tolerant, welcoming nature of its residents became its greatest strength. By the early 2000s, the borough was attracting new residents from all over Norway who wanted to be part of its diverse and alternative community, adding to the creative and multifaceted mix in new and exciting ways. Grünerløkka began to challenge the traditional split between the richer, well-established “posh” western part of Oslo and the traditionally less prosperous, worn-down working-class East Oslo as it became an attractive option for younger moneyed Oslovians.

While the wave of well-off new residents is not necessarily a bad thing and certainly proof of how well the borough is doing, the popularity of Grünerløkka has dramatically increased property prices in recent years and led to an ongoing flooding of the area by chain stores and mainstream cafés. The borough’s working-class residents are being priced out and immigrants are going elsewhere, leading to fears that Grünerløkka is losing its spirit to gentrification. Protest movements such as “Unity” are fighting to retain the essence of “Old Grünerløkka” community while the borough thrives in its dynamic popularity.

It’s a brave new world for Grünerløkka, but no one can argue with the fact that its transformations have been huge successes overall. The changes the borough has undergone have had a tremendous and lasting effect not just on neighbouring boroughs, but on the whole of Oslo – and possibly on the Norwegians themselves.

See also 1 Minute 1 Place: Grünerløkka

artworkArtwork by Josh Jameson