The changing face of Vesterbro

Just over eight years ago we were in the process of moving to Copenhagen and as part of our home search we were shown an apartment on Flensborggade in Vesterbro. It was newly renovated, in fact it was still being renovated when we viewed it, and outside the window we could see graffiti and drug users. The slightly run down street of 2008 is now popular with tourists staying in Airbnb type apartments and the place opposite is now a co-working space for creative freelancers and not a doorway for drug deals.

After viewing places in Frederiksberg that morning we  saw there was a real difference in the areas. Our relocator explained that he wanted to show us the other opportunities available for renters. The apartment was smaller than the ones we had on our list but the rent was close to the top of the budget. However he said this is going to be the place to live in a few years time and we could be at the start of this. Looking out of the window we decided we didn’t want to be the pioneers and quite frankly we were slightly disbelieving of this prophecy but baffled by the high rent. I think now what we would have been the start of and I am glad, for many reasons, we decided to move to a different part of town.

It was then time for lunch so he took us up onto Istedgade and into a shabby little cafe that smelt of, what I now know, frikkadellar and was full of workmen – it was the equivalent of a British greasy spoon. This cafe is now a Riccos (I think but it certainly no longer exists) and frequented by bearded hipsters smoking pipes outside. Not fancying the food in there that day and the fact there were no seats available, he took us to Cafe Høegs round the corner, still fairly gritty. Much more my speed and as we tucked into enormous portions of hummus on rye bread, he told us more about the area and how it would be much nicer in the coming years.

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Isted Herremagasin on the corner of Gasværksvej and Istedgade in 1968

Fast forward eight years and yes this area is ‘much nicer’. With the fixing room on Istedgade many drug users are off the streets and fixing up in a safe environment. Prostitution has been pushed to the top of Istedgade by the station and onto side streets (and if the media is to be believed further out into Indre By and Frederiksberg), there are fewer obvious drunks and addicts on the street (and a newish structure for them to congregate close to Enghave), but a lot less of the original businesses we saw in 2008 and loads more coffee shops, fancy and expensive boutiques, more young affluent people on the streets, sitting on pavement cafe seats drinking 45 krone coffees. New restaurants springing up on Enghavevej serving ramen and Mikkeller beers and locally sourced game meats rather than halal butchers, lanudromats and corner shops. The bodegas that just three years ago had hand-made anti hipster signs in their windows are now replaced by fancy bars and groceries. There are a number of old-time businesses hanging in there on Istedgade but how long they will last is debatable.
istedgade 102 1991

Istedgade 102, 1991 now Byens Bogcafe. This was a varmestue – a place where people could get a cheap hot meal, have a hot bath and clean their clothes. Kirkens Korshær still run these across Denmark and they have a place still on Istedgade at number 100.

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.The renewal of Vesterbro began in 1989, and at this time 64% of homes in Inner Vesterbro were without heating, and 70% without bathrooms. The city injected 4.3billion krone into the area and now all apartments are connected to district heating and only 4% (as the request of the tenants) are without a bathroom. All of this has come with a cost to the original residents of Vesterbro, many of whom have been displaced thanks to the 50% rise in rents since the renewal process. There has certainly been conflict between the new more affluent residents and the ‘old’ vulnerable Vesterbro, which is still in evidence but increasingly marginalised . At the time of renewal 50% of residents used their rights to permanent rehousing elsewhere as they feared the rent hikes after the assisted period of rent control was over. It is hard to see the statistics of those forced out of the area as many have not been registered elsewhere but many are displaced to Sydhavn and  they are sleeping on friends’ sofas, taken up homes in allotment areas and Lorterenden area in Sydhavn.

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Outside bathroom in a backyard on Saxogade in 1974

Vesterbro is now described by city authorities as having an ‘economically sustainable population’ and the area has undergone a deliberate urban change driven by public policy and market forces. There are still a number of community projects in the area including the Kirkens Korshær one above and another major project (which I shall talk about tomorrow) and the area is not completely gentrified but I am sure there are many people living and staying here who would like to see less of the original Vesterbro outside their expensive New York loft style apartments, coffee shops and hipster hotels. I recently watched this video and like many including Vice, wonder if it was trying to be ironic (sadly I don’t think so) but it sums the direction Vesterbro is going.

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Arbejdsløshedhuset (Unemployed House) on Istedgade in the 1970s (above) and now below, still housing a small drop in centre for vulnerable people in the area. Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 18.07.09

Old photos courtesy of Copenhagen Museum 

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