Normally, my web presence involves my meager, weird, and — I hope — humorous writings about Vikings, metal bands, and a recurring and unrelenting revulsion to office culture. But I also have a general interest in Scandinavian culture, history, and geography. And I have a very special affinity for the city of Norrköping in the county of Östergötland (Eastern Geatland) in the Kingdom of Sweden, and I wanted to share some images and information about this unique, generally overlooked place that I called home for a brief period of time in the past and recently revisited.
Because Norrköping (literally, “North Shopping-place,” and the Swedish “k” in this instance is even pronounced like “sh” in English) really is a very pleasant, little city. But it wasn’t always. Located about 100 kilometers southwest of Stockholm, it’s known within Sweden as the nation’s “Manchester,” meaning that it was the country’s foremost mill town during the Industrial Revolution. And like Manchester, and most, if not all, other factory-dominated cities in the western world, it featured horrid living conditions during its productive heydays in the 1800s and subsequently fell on some very bad times in the mid-1900s.
I lived in Norrköping in 2015 and, as a guest at the local university, researched the city’s industrial downfall and subsequent rise as a center of higher education, tech businesses, and entertainment and dining venues (because, sadly, I don’t make a living writing nonsense like this). It was a wonderful and enriching experience and in terms of post-industrial revitalization, the city has succeeded exceptionally well. My efforts focused on comparing its rebound to that of Lowell, Massachusetts (the home city of boxer, Mickey Ward, which received a little extra renown thanks to the 2010 film, The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams). In short, Lowell’s former mill district evolved into a predominately residential community with an extremely heavy and restrictive emphasis on historic preservation, while Norrköping’s former mill district evolved into a more lively area with an emphasis focused less on historic preservation and more on establishing a diverse concentration of urban activities.
Both cities feature the obligatory industrial history museums(s), but Norrköping’s attractions go a bit further and also include Värmekyrkan (a space that hosts traveling pop culture exhibits and other events), Visualiseringscenter C (home to Sweden’s only 3-d spherical cinematic theater), and De Geerhallen (a state-of-the-art performance center), all housed in former factory buildings. Additionally, both cities feature a satellite campus of a much larger university — UMass in Lowell, and Linköping University in Norrköping — but in Norrköping’s case, the satellite campus was predominately located in the former mill buildings, injecting a strong pulse of student life into the old industrial district. In Lowell the bulk of the campus is located across the river, away from the old mills.
During my recent visit back to the city, I enjoyed seeing how it had changed in the past five years. Most of the changes in the center of town involved businesses opening and closing, as is to be expected, and the construction of new buildings. I had known of these development plans, but not whether they’d actually be carried out when intended or not, and they were. Vacant lots of land in the city center have been filled in, and a funky new residential building has been constructed partially over the surface of the river itself.
While these were are all positive developments for the most part, I was disappointed to discover that the pedestrian pathway through the old metal tube facing the most dramatic of the city’s man-made waterfalls had been closed.
And I was amused to learn that new guided walking tours that follow in the footsteps of the characters of Emelie Schepp’s crime thrillers had been introduced! One of the top-selling authors in Sweden, Schepp hasn’t made quite the same splash outside of Scandinavia as Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell have, but her novels about the criminal prosecutor, Jana Berzelius, have been highly acclaimed both within and outside of Sweden. I also personally find it interesting and very impressive that she is the country’s most successful self-publisher to-date, selling 40,000 copies of her debut novel, Marked for Life, in Sweden all on her own (though she is, of course, no longer self-publishing her books).
And while Norrköping is a great little city, it’s not perfect. Nowhere is, and some of the folks I spoke with in 2015 indicated that certain groups of people have been left behind in the push for renewal and the desire to attract younger generations. To my knowledge, this phenomenon hasn’t been studied in detail regarding Norrköping specifically (though perhaps that has changed in the last five years, as I haven’t really kept myself up-to-date on esoteric academic research). Nonetheless, it’s a common issue in general when it comes to gentrification.
And then there’s the increasing violence. I certainly wasn’t expecting a bomb to be detonated in the Hageby neighborhood during my visit last week. Hageby is the peripheral neighborhood where violence in Norrköping most commonly happens; Sweden has unfortunately become a heavily segregated society. I’ve become accustomed to hearing about frequent shootings in Sweden, but not bombings, and it is disappointing to see that the violence has only escalated; the bomb detonated in Norrköping was only one of four that exploded throughout the country during my recent visit back. 257 detonations in total occurred in Sweden in 2019. The BBC reported on that trend back in November (before the final count was in — I figured an English-language link might be useful here for the icke svensktalande).
But you would never guess it from walking around the center of town, in Norrköping or really in any other Swedish city. Norrköping feels safe. It’s clean. The people are polite. It’s very typically svensk in those regards, just as everyone outside the country usually expects Sweden to be, based on the prevailing international conceptions of the nation. I went to Norrköping in 2015 to learn more about how it’s post-industrial development differed from Lowell’s. Former mill towns are not generally fun places to visit in and of themselves for tourists, but I’d certainly recommend a visit to this one. Sweden has some serious problems that most people in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere don’t seem to realize, but overall it remains a lovely country to visit and Norrköping makes a great day-trip from Stockholm, regardless of what one’s interests may be.