Sweden is one of the most prosperous countries in the world and even though there are poor people in Sweden, the Swedish welfare state makes sure that they can still live reasonable lives. Slums, I thought, is something only to be found in the developing world and other places lacking a good system of social security.
About a month ago a discussion broke loose about the Roma slums in Stockholm, and I was completely surprised. It just doesn’t fit in my idea of the Swedish, or any western European society.
But the images provided by several news sites cannot be interpreted in any other way, these are slums. I thought about something I had recently read, an argument by Ed Gleaser, that it is not our cities that make people poor, it is their success that attract the poor.
I had seen them on the streets of Stockholm, Roman women and men, of all ages, begging. Some walking around limping and some packed under thick blankets, in the cold Swedish winter.
I wanted to know more about the way these people live. I had never given it that much thought and I somehow presumed they were living in some overcrowded apartment, at worst, but not a slum.
The photos on the website gave an impression of the situation, but I wanted to take a closer look. Together with Lior I went to Högdalen, where we had heard they would be. After driving around through the neighborhood and asking several people about the whereabouts, we found them. Half hidden in an urban forest we saw what we were looking for, the slum.
We only saw a few “houses”, built from cheap wooden boards and plastic sheets. Out of the top sticking little chimneys. Nobody appeared to be home. We walked around a little bit and noticed that on the hill, on other side of the train tracks, even more “houses” were to be found. Once we arrived there we met a man walking his dog. He told us about his experiences with the Roman people living there. “They drive over the walking paths and chop wood from the park”, he said “and when I told them they don’t have the right to do that they became aggressive. I felt threatened because they had axes, so I called the police, but they never came”.
Another man, who passed on a moped, told us that he had seen this before in Stockholm in the 50s and 60s. At that time the Roman were called Taikon, after their spokesperson Kristina Taikon, a Swedish author with roman heritage. A short movie was made about a Roman camp in Stockholm in that time.
The settlement appeared to be much bigger than we expected. It seemed almost like there were several villages/camps, some containing not more than two, and the biggest with about ten houses.
The largest of these camps seemed much more organized than the smaller ones. There was less garbage laying in and around the camp and the residents had obtained electricity by opening street lighting. By digging out the cables from the earth and leading them to their huts they are able to use the electricity in their homes.
The worst part of walking around and looking at the horrible condition these people live in was to see the toys of the children. The idea that these children would grow up this way, living outside of society, seemed horrible. For them the life as slum dweller is all they know, which will make it much harder for them to adapt to lives within mainstream society later in life.
The more we walked around there the more I wanted to talk to them and ask them about their way of living. When I was studying at Amsterdam University, our professor Zef Hemel once told us that the best people to ask about cities’ public spaces are the homeless, and these inventive slum dwellers can probably teach us a lot about a side of the city we have no idea about. The contrast is large, just 10 minutes away by metro the richest are slurping their cappuccinos.
Update: In the time between writing and posting the slum has been cleared, only to be rebuilt somewhere else.
Images: Sascha Benes