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A Village in the City: The Svartlamon Story

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

In our most recent volume of the magazine, we explored our city’s enigmatic neighbourhood – Svartlamon. We know this neighbourhood carries a lot of beauty, creativity and some of the city’s most fantastic people and we wanted to share it with you. We invite you to take a look at the neighbourhood through both the words of our writer Zane Datava and also through lens of our photographer Claudia Vargas and then go visit yourself.

The houses, all distinct and with loads of charm, show off the handiwork of the residents and friends who come together to build, maintain and live in them. Photo – Wil Lee-Wright

Idyllic little streets, gardens and greenhouses made of old window frames, cats, kids and even chickens, all combine in a colourful collage that creates a one-of-a-kind community called Svartlamon. But what is Svartlamon and what is it that attracts people to move to this neighbourhood?

Katherine Standal

Kathrine Standal is the head of Boligstiftelsen, Svartlamon’s housing foundation, and knows Svartlamon from its many sides. “What is Svartlamon? It’s the people who live here, not the houses,” says Kathrine. “In order to live here, you need to be willing to live with your neighbours. It has many advantages, but can be challenging too,” she says.

Svartlamon is a village within a city, and people know their neighbours much better here than in other parts of town. It is a family-friendly area in a very genuine sense. Most people know each other’s kids, and after a certain age, they just roam freely. “I think that children growing up here are really happy because they have a lot of grown-ups and children that see them and take part in their lives,” adds Kathrine.

There is an openness, an acceptance that people are diverse and want to live in a diversity of ways. Here it’s easier to get the feeling of ownership and to see it in practice, as residents are free to influence and change their environment, both socially and physically. It all started at the end of the 90s, following the protests of the people and the involvement of well-known artists, the area was not allowed to become a private property and a special ‘urban ecological experimental area’ was created.

Bright and colourful graffiti adorn many spots in Svartlamon as a free art exhibition for all.

Kathrine says that a vital part of Svartlamon is that it gives an alternative to standard neighbourhoods and shows that there are different ways of organising and developing a community, and homes.

“The housing market in Norway is excessive, and people don’t actually need the big spaces they have. Even though it is important to have a good house, as it gets cold in winters,” says Ranja Bojer, a long time Svartlamon resident. “It is also important to show that one can build their own house and do so inexpensively. That is something people should know about.”

This is something which is part of the culture of Svartlamon and often draws people to it as it is a very tangible representation of a different way of creating community. A great illustration of that is the Eksperimentboligeror Experimental Housing, sitting in a row of six and made mainly from recycled materials, which have recently been added to the neighbourhood (pictured on opposite page, top right).

Guro Sletnes

Guro Sletnes, another resident (pictured opposite), who has two kids and lives in a dreamy house made of recycled materials, and painted pink, agrees to that. She likes the fact that the kids will have a different perspective because they live in diversity and with examples of a wide array of possible life choices.

She and her family moved in a year ago, and they have been building their house for two years. Even though they had their friends from Svartlamon before as they spent a lot of time here, she says that “It is a big difference to live in the community. Here I have so many friends and people I know just next to me.” Guro speaks on the generosity of her neighbours not only with time but things like bringing dinner by or flowers because they have an abundance to share. “That’s something you don’t get when you live on the ‘outside’. It’s a new life, and I was really longing for that. Whatever you need, you will always get help”.

It is a common ground, a common view on things, what unites people here. It also applies to the preservation of the area’s buildings instead of building new constructions. The house where Guro and her family live in is made with old materials and only a little new. Guro, herself, always wanted to live in one of the old apartments in Svartlamon, because she was and is fascinated by the history of the old buildings. She wants people to know that it is possible to create a homes which is sustainable and ecologically-friendly: “They are built to live in, not to sell.”

“That gives freedom to choose other activities. One can choose to volunteer, or develop their hobbies, or to have more free time for family and friends instead,” adds Guro. She also explains that it is important to understand that there exists the opportunity to choose differently, to choose your living style, not to have it decided for you and to have to pay the price for it. It is about choosing a so called ‘lower standard’– old and worn, with shared bathrooms and smaller spaces, and a responsibility to take care of property you legally don’t own in exchange for this freedom. The exchange is for the freedom of choice, and not for the possibility to consume more. It is quite the opposite, and many of the residents aim to consume less, and be conscious about their choices.

Alise Plavina and Bjørn Inge Melås finishing their Friday’s work on their future home, Selbukassa.

Alise Plavina and Bjørn Inge Melås are finishing Friday’ s work on the home they will move into with their families. What is their attraction to Svartlamon? Alise says that her interest in Svartlamon is not so much linked to what the area may ‘protect’ her from (real estate market, higher rents etc.), but rather what it facilitates or allows to happen. For example the house they are building – they are in the process of rebuilding ‘Selbukassa‘, the nickname of an old log house from the 1920s which they, along with others, moved from Selbu to Svartlamon to create four apartments in. Bjørn Inge mentions that these log houses in older times were built to be easily moved or expanded. The fact that an old log house is getting a second life in Svartlamon is not surprising as it fits right in with the spirit of reuse and repurposing.

Another reason for interest in Svartlamon, according to Alise, is the high density of individuals engaging proactively in the everyday practices of the community. This proactiveness can be seen in political and environmental activism, solving practical everyday issues together, maintaining the buildings, gardening, sharing ideas and generally being very open with each other.

An array of resident groups have been established to handle the community needs through volunteering. There are many levels of involvement to suit one’s abilities. It is done with the hope that the collective values and interests will overlap assuring that the community will be renewed and recreated continuously.

How then, in such an open atmosphere, is a balance between public and private interests established? In Svartlamon, are there are many possibilities to talk to the neighbours without inviting them into one’s personal space?

There is a concept which was invented by American sociologist Roy Oldenburg, the so-called “third place”. The idea of the “third place” is that which is neither home, nor workplace, but is in between those. Svartlamon has many examples of this third place. The common spaces such as the gardens, the book cafe, the pub and green spaces play an essential role in the community’s life, vitality and democracy. It gives the residents community and privacy.

Tom Hansen at Ivar Matlaus bokkafé.

One of those third spaces is the legendary Ivar Matlaus bokkafé. Tom Hansen, who is one of the people behind it says that “while living in Svartlamon, I am never short of anything, be it coffee or sugar or a hug! It’s always within an arm’s reach. I am often just out walking and get invited for a coffee.”

Hansen enjoys sharing the duty of running and keeping the bookstore open, which occasionally hosts concerts and discussions, and presenting his choice of favourite books from the store. Which range from occultism to arts. The books are carefully selected – some are bought from book markets, secondhand bookshops or ordered online, some are selected from donations, a diverse mix just like the homes and the residents.

There is no leadership structure to the cafe. It’s the collective work of 15 – 20 people. The store has been here since 1997 when the area was rescued. On a sunny day, it isn’t unusual to see a couch outside, or people sitting on the grass in front of the store. “It’s like a small town here,” says Tom.

Ramp is one of Svartlamon's most iconic places.

In the newly opened gallery ZNEDI, in her workshop, a ceramic artist Katarzyna Chrzanovska can be found. Together with Ole Nordsveen, who redesigns old silverware, coins and other materials in jewellery, they opened this space. Before that, she had her studio at RAKE, an artist studio collective, in Svartlamon for more than four years.

“I found this place really soon after I came to Norway, and it became my work and free time space, even though I don’t live here,” Katarzyna says. “I spend most of my free time here, we have been meeting others at the studio, and been involved Svartlamon Dagen and studio open days. I really feel like a part of it, and I don’t want to be in any other place. People are really warm here and open to each other, and active inside the community. They care about the environment, both social and natural,” She speaks about how people just come and ask if you need help. “People also know each other’s faces which feels good. You know instantly that you are in a good place.”

Ranja Bojer, writer, DJ and longtime Svartlamon resident.

Ranja Bojer is a writer and a DJ and has been living in Svartlamon from before it was rescued. “It just seemed a perfect place to live. Not just because of the cheap rent, but more because of the environment, a place where we could belong.

Ranja was a member of the board of the housing foundation for four years, so for her, it is time for a break in being highly active in the diverse community activities. “It goes in waves, what you are able and want to contribute to the community. But it is essential to have the possibility to be active and have an influence on your closest surroundings.”

Residents understand how it looks from the outside and to those unfamiliar to the neighbourhood. Ranja is a DJ and sometimes returns home late at night. She’s had questions from taxi drivers saying, oh, you live here? It must be dangerous! For her, it is precisely the opposite. “It’s the safest place!” she says. Though she explains that with visuals one sees in the neighbourhood such as graffiti, alternatively dressed people, and not so stereotypical houses, it can be misunderstood.

“Svartlamon is an organically experimental area, which means we can try out new things here, and we can learn from these experiences. We want people to know about it,” says Ranja. To those who know it is no surprise to hear that anyone is welcome to come and walk the streets and talk to people. “It’s great if people come and walk around, look around and take pictures,” says Tom.

Katherine Standal by the “wall of cast-off” materials which have some of the most intriguing textures, colours and previous lives put into new use.
The wall of “cast off things” stands adjacent to Strandveien 37.

For those people who are curious about getting to know Svartlamon for themselves, Kathrine recommends attending Svartlamondagen, which is a one-day festival, usually organised on the last Saturday of May. Ranja mentions that a crucial role of this one-day festival is that it shows what is happening in Svartlamon and breaks some possible prejudices about the area. The whole community is involved in the preparation of it, and the neighbourhood is filled with concerts, activities for kids, food, open workshops and joy.

However, if you want to get to know Svartlamon sooner than May, on 30 November, Svartlamon is celebrating its 20 year anniversary. Save the date to attend what is sure to be an exciting event. Of course, in true Svartlamon spirit, the programme as yet to be announced, but it’s well worth the wait!


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