Hot on the heels of my paean to the Stockholm Sluice, here’s something about the Hornsgatan street in Stockholm. Be warned, though: this work has been deemed substandard by the Swedish editor of Vice Magazine.
By Martin Rundkvist, 19 March 2007
Hornsgatan, the Street of the Horn, used to be Stockholm’s Wild West. It starts sedately enough at the 17th century South Town Hall but then ploughs straight through the churchyard of St. Mary, the bones of poets and burghers flying. Gathering speed, it passes Marijuana Square (as St. Mary’s square was known in the 70s) and shoots off west through post-war housing estates toward the Toll Gate of the Horn. It’s straight, it’s noisy and it stinks.
Stockholm’s a pretty clean place in that typical Scandinavian way. No coal furnaces, the cars are largely new, and high wages have scared off most of the heavy industry from the area. So if you want lung cancer and don’t like smoking, there are few places to go. Hornsgatan is actually your best bet, offering what may be the worst air in all of Sweden. That’s where you will find appreciable amounts of car exhaust and airborne particles torn from the surface of the street. Early spring is the funkiest period, when sand strewn over the icy asphalt during the winter is everywhere, and drivers haven’t had time yet to switch from winter tyres studded with steel.
Take a deep breath. Hold it. Feel the silicate and methylbenzene mist settle in your chest. Yeah, it’s a city all right.
Talking to the locals, I find that pretty much everyone knows about the bad air, but nobody worries about it. Sam the Friendly Ethiopian Barista shrugs and says, “The air may be bad by Swedish standards, but hey, I grew up in Addis Ababa and Los Angeles, so I’ve seen much worse”. Regular customer Vickan agrees, she was a city girl herself and now she’s raising two children at Hornsgatan. Sam’s espresso place is way out west, and most of the neighbouring establishments seem to cater to old folks. There’s the health food store advertising herbal menopause remedies, a fishing-gear place, dry cleaners, realtors, non-hip hairdressers and dusty clothing boutiques, and to make your septuagenarian shopping experience complete, an undertakers’. But a change is coming on. The espresso bar opened a year ago, and young people are moving in to replace tenants who breathed the air of Hornsgatan for too long and made the final trip to the undertakers. But the barista doesn’t want to see his street too commercialised. That way Starbucks lies.
To many, Hornsgatan is synonymous with the Hump’s art galleries. Before the traffic channel was blasted through St. Mary’s churchyard, the street crested a small hill outside the churchyard wall. The Hump is still there, but instead of the wall, there’s a balustrade and a 25-foot drop. On the untouched side of the Hump, the galleries. Artist friends tell me that displaying your work on the Hump is a career choice amounting to an admission of scaled-down pretentions. The Hump galleries sell paintings and prints affordably to middle-class suburbanites. Once you’ve taken that path, you can never hope to make your bread by selling three insanely expensive pieces a year to collectors in Manhattan.
Gangly serious Sara is in high school, and she doesn’t care either about the bad air. No wonder: she’s busy smoking a cigarette when I talk to her. Hornsgatan’s tentative drift toward hip has registered here too: she tells me it’s the place to go for cool second-hand sunglasses. Sara would love to live in the area. She and her friends hang out on summer evenings on the Skinnarviken cliffs where the view is to die for. And after the high-schoolers go home, the little death is sought and found in this, one of the city’s traditional gay cruising areas.
Incongruously, I find a huge bicycle store on the most polluted street in the city. The windows are full of indoor bikes. I wonder what the net effect on your health will be if you lug an indoor bike up to your apartment on Hornsgatan and pedal it evening after evening with a window ajar to let in the exhaust fumes. I’d prefer to buy a bike that will actually take me out of the city.