I’m going to be venturing outside of Toronto and even Canada for this post. Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Oslo, Norway to visit a friend. Even before I got there, I had a list of what I wanted to do and see: taking in the nature the city had to offer as well as the typical tourist-y, sightseeing, museum-y stuff.
But I also wanted to explore. More specifically, pick a neighbourhood, run around, and see what it’s all about. I do that in Toronto already, so why not bring that overseas?
My choice of where to go wasn’t completely random. One of the running themes I love to explore in Toronto is former industrial neighbourhoods and the layers of history within them. Gentrification, transformation, adaptive reuse…it’s all very compelling stuff. I wondered if there was something like that in Olso.
Grünerløkka is a former-manufacturing district located for the most part to the east of Akerselva (river Akers), considered the boundary between East and West Oslo. Are there parallels to Toronto? Definitely. Grünerløkka is basically Oslo’s bohemian, hip(ster) neighbourhood. It’s a cross between Leslieville and West Queen West with a little bit of Yorkville, Liberty Village, Kensington Market, and the Distillery District sprinkled in there.
To get to Grünerløkka, I take the 11 trikk from where I’m staying in Majorstuen and get off at Thorvald Meyers gate at Olaf Ryes plass (square). As I’ve written about before, place names are often important ‘ins’ into understanding the makeup and history of a locale. ‘Grünerløkka’, for instance, refers to Friedrich Grüner, an early property owner in the area. Grüners gate (street), the northern boundary of Olaf Ryes plass, also is an homage to him. Thorvald Meyer was a businessman who bought substantial property in Grünerløkka in 1860. Grunerlokka became part of Oslo in 1858, suggesting there was a distinct identity to the district even before it was absorbed into the city – much like the many annexed communities that would eventually become the city of Toronto.
Exiting the streetcar, I immediately browse my surroundings. Thorvald Myers is one the main commercial throughways in the neighbourhood and is thus quite lively. Across the street, there is the plass; behind me is a building with large words above the door. I don’t know the significance, but imagine there could be a story there. Doing some research after the fact, ‘Paulus Menighetshus’ translates to St. Paul’s Parish, and according to this Digital Museum entry (have to love online museums) has been around since 1965.
I do a quick walk through the square, passing a table of fresh strawberries on the way to the park’s centrepiece – the fountain. All the benches are full. And why not? It’s a gorgeous day to sit around. I head to Grüners gate, noting the row of restaurants with giant patios.
One of my goals in coming to Grünerløkka was to find some of the remaining industrial architecture, and through a pretty educated guess, I figure that there might be some by the river. At the western terminus of Grüners, there’s a nearby grain silo which has been converted into residential space for students. Of the many examples of adaptive reuse I’ve come across, this is one of the most crafty and ingenuous. I wonder about the logistics of such a conversion, though.
In the other direction, there’s a path leading down to some parkland. Sunbathers rest on grassy hills, and I can see dog and their owners meandering below. Getting close to Akerselva, I note how shallow it is. I think fair to suggest that this is the end-product of vigorous industrialization. This is Oslo’s Don River – the heart of early industry in the city. Like the Don, it has taken a beating over the years, and only recently has there been real attention put toward its value. This article by the City of Oslo tells me of the rejuvenation of the Akers. After years of pollution, a beautifying initiative has sprung up to make the river and the surrounding infrastructure a gorgeous hub for new ecosystems and human activity. Further up I can see a group of people standing in the middle of the ankle-deep waters. It reminds me of parts of the Mimico Creek in Etobicoke. I pass a bridge and a man convening with some pigeons (not quite at a Home Alone II level, though).
Then, I gladly come across a complex of brick buildings, unmistakably industrial in design. The one nearest to me has what I interpret to be a historical plaque (the old years hint toward it). I think about getting a dog-walker to translate for me, but I settle for Google’s help after the fact.
I pass another bridge – this one with charming love locks (not quite Paris worthy, though). Up the Akers is a waterfall, one of a few along the river’s course. I head back to the buildings and ascend the stairs. At the top, I find out their adapted purpose (a fine arts school campus) and then a little further down along the cobblestone path a clue on their historic use. Christiana Seildugsfabrik. Christiana was Oslo’s name between 1624 and 1924. Fabrik might refer to clothes. After some research, I’m partially right. Seildugsfabrik was a hefty operation which made textiles for ships. Our friend Thorvald Meyer even had a hand in it.
I find my way to the road network at Seilduksgata. I arbitrarily turn north on the next street I come across (someone’s had fun with the street sign). Walking a bit, to my right I see the back of a church tower. To my left is a school, rich in great masonry and the use of arches.
Heading up to and across Sannergata, there’s a different vibe to the district than what I experienced near Olaf Ryes plass. For one thing, the streets are for the most part barren. But the most striking characteristic is the prevailing graffiti. Grünerløkka might be a renewed working class district, but elements of its seedy past still linger on. It reminds me a bit of Toronto’s Leslieville, a neighbourhood in transition. Even with gentrification, hints of the days of yore remain. Travelling south on Toftes gate, a tattoo parlour and an animated mural.
Then I come to Birkelunden, the third park of the day. Grünerløkka is coloured with them. Birkelunden has its own tint. I enter from the side that houses the formidable looking Grünerløkka skole. My sights move across the park to get my second look at Paulus Kirke today, this time from the front. The creation and planning of public parks is a fascinating topic. It looks like Birkelunden was always intended to be a park from the start, but I wonder about the planning that goes into the surrounding environment. More specifically, I wonder if it was deliberate to pit a school and church across from each other with a park in the middle, but something about it works. There’s a religious institution, an educational institution, and then this public forum at the centre.
Then, I unexpectedly come across a market. This is the park’s Sunday bric-a-brac. I meander around the tables, looking for anything eye-catching and useless. I take the time to look for a wallet, but see nothing that suits me. I do come across CDs and used vinyl, though. I find a copy of Queen’s ‘A Day at the Races’. With my takeaway for the day, I exit via the familiar Seilduksgata. I take a moment to examine what looks like an upcoming development. Even the signs and gate are littered with spray paint.
Heading south, I come across Sofienbergparken – park #4 of the day. It’s the biggest of them all thus far. I spoke about the planning of parks earlier. Well, this one has an interesting story – turns out it was once a cemetery. Following a cholera outbreak in the city in 1853, the block that contained Sofienberg, then outside Oslo’s borders, was chosen as a resting place for the victims. Over time it seems people opined it was a bad and unhygienic idea to have a cemetery in the middle of a growing, dense neighbourhood, so it was gradually made into a park.
There’s a Toronto connection, too! St. James Park was also once a graveyard. In 1844, the overcrowded cemetery was moved to its present location on Parliament Street. But before that, Toronto suffered cholera epidemics in 1832 and again in 1834. The story is a portion of St. James Cathedral still holds the unmarked graves of cholera victims. More than that, there was idea that a cemetery in the centre of town (metres away from the financial core no less) was not the best scenario.
Oblivious to this bit of hidden history, I join the masses in reading and relaxing on the grass. I pull out some Toronto fiction, the classic In The Skin of a Lion, which I keep with me to remind me of home, and then I move on.
I admittedly get lost after this. I’m trying to find my way back to Olaf Ryes plass. Just when I think I’ve found it, I realise it’s not the right place. This is Schous Plass and, in addition to being park #5, has a nice old library. I have to consult a map, which shamefully tells me I’m actually not to far from where I need to go.
A short walk up Thorvald Meyers and I find the park! Before jumping on the tram, I make the executive decision to grab some lunch. I pass by a number of establishments including a famed watering hole in the area, Grünerløkka Brygghus (Brewhouse), and Valouria Vintage (because vintage shops are a must in hipster neighbourhoods – just as Queen Street West) before settling on a sandwich from Something Hotel. It’s an investment I immediately regret for its taste and price point, but it’ll have to do. I eat while I wait for the tram that got me here. I have just as many minutes wait as the number trikk I need. When it does come, it swoops me back to Majorstuen.
This marked the end of my venture on this particular day, but I would return with company to Grünerløkka two more times in the coming days. We would head to the western part of the district on the other side of the Akers. Here one finds the grand Mathallen Food Hall (which was sadly closed when we tried to go) and little alleyways that lead to riverside entreprises. Ingens Gate (which comically translates to Nobody’s Street) in particular is a fun little nook with entertaining street art.
On another occasion, we fuel up at the two microbreweries: the already mentioned Brygghus, and at Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeria, which is just south of Schous plass. It’s a dimly lit basement bar (really, ‘kjelleren’ means ‘basement’). No music, no trinkets on the wall, no nothing. There is a a sweet fireplace, though! And it’s fittingly located on the grounds of the former Schous Bryggeri (brewery). Christian Schou, a brewer, is another name synonymous with the local history of Grünerløkka that lives on in the neighbourhood.
Actually, the growth of amazing drinking establishments that has (in part) made Grünerløkka the “to go and be” district in Oslo might be attributed to the growth of the craft beer industry in Norway. The beer industry as a whole has been re-animated because of microbrews. It’s interesting because there have been breweries in Oslo for a long time (look at the above 1917 map and look for anything with Bryggeri in the title – I can count 3 of them), but the industry went stagnant. With Oslo and Norway playing catchup, the bar scene in the city – something that Toronto has been doing very well at in recent years – is better than ever.
Google Maps – My Route through Grünerløkka
Oslobilder – “Grünerløkka”
Industrimuseum – “Seildugsfabrik Christiania”
SkyscraperCity Forums – Never fulfilled urban renewal/developments plans for Oslo, Norway (Includes early plans for Grünerløkka)