Copenhagen’s Nørrebro continues to thrive through diversity

Though characterized as volatile and less glamorous than the idealized Danish neighborhood, Nørrebro’s residents seem perfectly content

by Domenic Strazzabosco & Sarah Petty

Top to Bottom: The main neighborhood road Nørrebrogade, graffiti and protest art on the surrounding buildings, the final resting place of Hans Christian Andersen. By Domenic Strazzabosco

The Nørrebro area of Copenhagen, situated directly east of Sankt Jørgens Sø, may get painted as one of the grittiest, most combative areas of the city, but many residents and employees see the space as a place where diversity, charity and creativity can flourish.

Nørrebrogade, the main road, features an array of cafes, clothing shops – both new and vintage, grocery stores, and of course, a steady stream of bicyclists. The physical components of the neighborhood are standard for what one imagines in Denmark’s capital, but what’s different is the diversity in the crowds filling the street. 

“There is a really good black community here,” said Paige Collings, noting that the diversity and culture are what drew her to moving to Nørrebro three years ago. “I’m always with my friends. They’re producing music, they’re painting, and do lots of visual arts. All my creative friends live in this neighborhood.”

For decades the neighborhood has been home to many communities that may not look traditionally Danish. Due to a large number of public housing units built in the 1970’s many immigrants, students and artists found their way into the streets of Nørrebro, establishing communities that still thrive today.

Since the mid-1990’s parts of the neighborhood have had the highest concentration non-western immigrants, peaking at 43 percent during the turn of the century.

“I guess why people come here is because they’ve been treated right,” said Søren Skov, a longtime resident and employee at Route 66 records. “We usually say in this store, the best thing we can do with tourists is treat them nicely and friendly.”

Later, he recounted a time his brother came to visit after traveling around the world. When the two were out for drinks at a local bar, so many international friends of Soren’s came up, telling his brother to visit if he ever made it to their home countries.

“Suddenly, I was the globe trotter just sitting on a fucking barstool.  Instead of just traveling around, I actually got to meet people and befriend them,” Soren said.

The blending of cultures and arts is perhaps most visual in Superkilen, or The Red Square, an expansive park running parallel to the main road. In between the bright red and orange square and the green park is a smaller section ironically named The Black Market. The section features an array of elements from the neighborhoods wide-ranging cultures. Chinese palm trees, a large tile Moroccan star, and a neon sign that one would typically see driving down an American freeway can all be spotted.

The Black Market’s Moroccan tile fountain and neon signs from China, the USA, Taiwan, and Russia. by Domenic Strazzabosco

Despite the vibrant community, the area has somewhat of a tarnished reputation for riots and gang activity. Earlier this year over 20 people were arrested after a political speech by Rasmus Paludan erupted into violence; the lawyer turned politician is widely known for criticizing aspects of modern Danish society and controversial acts such as burning the Quran.

“It takes too much, the stories. They get too strong sometimes,” said resident Tine Tranekær in regard to how the media treats tensions in the neighborhood. “It’s not everyday life here.”

The stores in Nørrebro seem to understand that cities around the world do not have all the same luxuries as Copenhagen. Along the main road, there is a Red Cross and the donation-based, volunteer-run store Happy Hand. Founded by the Seven Day Adventist Church, the store donates all money to areas around the world in need, most recently The Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian devastated the islands. Throughout the year they collect warm clothes and distribute them to those experiencing homelessness during the bitter winter season.

Igner Flint, a volunteer at Happy Hand, described how the store has opened its doors to everyone in Nørrebro. The front features a circle of armchairs where people come together over cups of tea and coffee and a plate of cookies to chat with their neighbors. The back has a small table with papers to write blessings and a room where one can receive a prayer from a pastor.

Taking a seat at this communal table may be just enough to learn and see why people minorities, students and artists have been gravitating to the area for so many years.

The red square, the black market and the green spaces of Superkilen. By Domenic Strazzabosco