Sweden's Suburbs, Sweden's Riots

Police shoot a knife-wielding immigrant, and anger gets vented
Bystanders take photos of a row of burning cars in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby after a riot, on May 23, 2013 Photograph by Fredrik Sandberg/AP Photo

It takes 23 minutes to get to Raagsved by local train from the center of Stockholm. Once there, you have two choices. Walk over a low hill past a well-regarded elementary school, and you will find rows of three-story, slate-roofed townhouses. Each has a small lawn. In the summer, families hang plants on the terraces that front each story.

Or you can look right in front of you, to a modernist dream of a poured-concrete hemicycle with a bar and a youth center. Past it sits a soccer field covered in fine gravel. And overlooking that, a circle of seven 10-story flat grey towers, each story with a row of satellite dishes. On the far side of the circle, young mothers in hijab watch their children play on a wooden pirate ship.

Cars burned on Thursday night in Stockholm’s southern suburbs, where police have been countering fits of arson and rioting since Tuesday night. And in Raagsved on Thursday morning, according to Bloomberg News, 11 people were taken away in police buses. More rioters wore masks; police are still trying to identify them. In the summer of 2011, well before the riots, when I told acquaintances in central Stockholm I was headed out to Raagsved to report a story, I was warned to take a guard. Jokingly. Half-jokingly. My acquaintances were thinking of the towers. That’s where the immigrants live.

The two Raagsveds on either side of the hill date to two different eras, designed to fulfill the same policy: housing, mostly for ethnic Swedes. The low townhouses on the far side of the hill were built in the 1950s to provide better-quality housing than the older stock in the city center. In the middle part of the 20th century, Sweden guaranteed a right to housing and in 1965 began the “Million Program,” which would supply 100,000 housing units a year for 10 years.

It was a bad decade for architecture, filled with bad ideas. The Million Program gave Sweden its Stalinist towers, like the council flats of the U.K., Paris’s banlieues, and what we in the U.S. would call projects. Unlike France or the U.S., however, Sweden didn’t build its towers to house an influx of cheap labor from somewhere else—North Africans in France, southern blacks to the industrial north in America. Some labor came to Sweden from Italy and Greece, but the country built its hideous towers mostly for Swedes. That they came to be filled with migrants is an accident. But it is slowly having the same effect.

Sweden’s immigrants come not necessarily to fill a need for labor. They are also drawn by the country’s generous asylum policies. Finns make up Sweden’s largest foreign population, followed by Iraqis—128,000 of them—Poles, Serbians, Iranians, and Bosnians. In the 1980s, Raagsved and other suburbs were still mainly Swedish. But large groups of immigrants began to arrive in the 1990s, around the same time the country dramatically liberalized its housing policy. Subsidies ended, new housing starts slowed, and as the country sorted itself geographically by income, immigrants ended up in the ugliest places: the bad-idea towers of the Million Program.

Raagsved, too, has sorted itself. The townhouses on the far side of the hill still house ethnic Swedes. In 2011 a Swede living there in his early 60s told me that things were not the same, in a way that did not invite further discussion. The riots to the south of Stockholm started a week after police shot and killed a 69-year-old Portuguese man who had drawn a knife in the Million-Program suburb of Husby. But of course, riots are never about what they’re about. They’re always about something else, a collection of mistakes and accidents.

Unemployment and lack of opportunity play a role. In Sweden, the unemployment rate for those born in Sweden stands at 5.7 percent. For immigrants from countries outside the European Union, it’s 16.5 percent—still low by Spanish standards, but a stark difference. Anger also comes from being told you don’t belong. Sweden is still generous to its immigrants. But, as with Paris and its banlieues, Stockholm has pushed its immigrants out to its ugliest suburbs. To get to the city, where the money is, you have to take a bus, then a train. Even if Sweden didn’t mean to isolate its immigrants in hideous towers, the immigrants’ location still sends a signal. You can live here, but you don’t get to belong.

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