Sweden Unzipped

Goteborg is the “second city” of Sweden. It lies on the fjord of the country's west coast, at the mouth of the Gota River, and looks across the Kattegat strait to the tip of Denmark, then, peering around Norway's rump, out to the North Sea and Scotland. “Ah, Goteborg,” sighed the desk clerk at my Stockholm hotel, a young woman who radiated, in that Swede way, high birth weight, a sense of fair play and sensual allure, all packed into one carefree smile. “The air is saltier there.”

In Sweden, there is no mentioning Goteborg without inviting a comparison to Stockholm. “So you are going to Goteborg?” a tweedy young man asked me, incredulously, in an espresso bar on the capital's fashionable Sodermalm island. “You know there is really only one street there.” Together the two cities are like textbook examples from a birth-order study. Stockholm, the older sibling, is smart, bold, so royally self-possessed it occasionally forgets it is not an only child. Little Goteborg — its population hovers around half a million — is puckish, tough, creative and streaked through with a certain dark impulsiveness and self-doubt.

In a candid phrase that brings Americans up short, Swedes refer to Goteborg as “the worker's city.” One still finds the giants of Swedish industry here, like Hasselblad and Volvo, and the city has always been un-Swedish for being so frankly commercial. Perhaps this is because it has been, in a literal sense, un-Swedish: the Dutch built it in the 17th century (hence the canals), Scots made it prosperous in the 18th (hence “Gothenburg,” the official English version of its Swedish name) and émigré Jewish families set up a forward-thinking system of finance in the 19th. Over 400 years, its various merchants have left Goteborg both beautiful and ugly, a cross between Amsterdam and (no offense) Yonkers, N.Y.

For long stretches, a wanderer in Goteborg will find nothing but heartless apartment blocks or shuttered industrial waterfront, and as recently as the early 1990s, the city was known as much for anarchist street violence and a grim-reaper genre of music called death metal as for its wide canals and ye olde architecture.

Enduring pockets of utter charmlessness, however, have lately become the city's secret weapon. In an age of global supercapital, of triplex pieds-à-terre and velvet ropes, Goteborg has stayed, unlike Stockholm, unassuming and fairly cheap. In the past, Swedes would get their degrees here (it is the country's largest university town) and flee. But increasingly, musicians, artists, designers and shoestring entrepreneurs — the youth-ish culture that gives a city its raffish vitality and, arguably, its economic vitality — are staying, or returning, the latest wave of un-Swedish Swedes to colonize Goteborg for their own purpose.

Signs of Goteborg's newfound urban felicity are everywhere, but natives caution that while some of the revival is authentic — that is, rooted in Goteborg's unique weirdness — much is top-down, revivalist crap. The Kungsportsavenyn, known as Avenyn, or the Avenue, is a wide boulevard running through the middle of the city lined with sleek hotels, clubs and alfresco dining. The pride of official municipal Goteborg, the Avenue is regarded by “real” Goteborgians as a monstrosity.

(It mostly is, but even the Avenue, with its requisite Hard Rock Cafe, cannot escape weirdness: it dead-ends at Carl Milles's statue of Poseidon, whose bizarrely small genitalia is the subject of much local amusement.) Far more enticing is the Haga, a tangle of cobbled streets and 18th- and 19th-century houses converted into antiques stores and cafes. The Haga is almost oppressively pleasant; hard-core Goteborgians are suspicious of it, too, and pointed me instead to the Langgatan, or the Long Streets.

The Long Streets lie in the Linne district, to the west of the Haga, and they represent a bottom-up scene of the classic mixed-use variety: coffee shops, galleries, artist studios, recording labs and sex shops all sit side by side, sharing the same precious urban oxygen. Here I spent an afternoon tanking up at Cafe Publik, browsing nu jazz at the Blenda record store (record store!) and shopping for knickknacks and comics at a junk shop.

Despite the genuine delights of the Long Streets, I discovered something about urban authenticity: like the owl of Minerva, it spreads its wings only at dusk. That night, I went to an indie rock show in a cold-war bunker, drilled deep into the side of a mountain. The interior was sconce lit, the bands were lo-fi, and the walls were covered with photos to make Mapplethorpe blush. Surely, I thought, this was the “real” Goteborg? But in this city, whenever you think you've found Goteborg, someone tells you, “No, no, that is not it.” In the bomb shelter I was told that the real Goteborg is “underground,” hearing for the first time the city's most cherished metaphor. And to help me find underground Goteborg, I was introduced to Johan.

Johan Zetterquist grew up a heavy-metal tough in rural Sweden. He studied art in Goteborg, during the dark times, when much of the city's hulking industrial infrastructure was shutting down. As the skinheads battled the anarchists in the Haga, Johan was frequenting the so-called black, or illegal, rave clubs and dabbling in the death metal scene. To make it, he had to abandon Goteborg, so he bounced around the States and Europe for years, eventually emerging as one of Sweden's most successful young artists.

Johan is now a doting father, and when we first met, his look summed up his many contradictions: he wore a tight blond buzz cut, cowboy boots and a herringbone blazer, sleeves scrunched up to reveal alarming forearms tattooed with the names of his children. When I asked him about his work, he smirked and said, “You mean, what's my bag? What's my angle, man?” Johan's “bag” has been a sly combination of urban-subculture-inspired installations and “public proposals” that are self-consciously absurd, like his plans for a permanently burning house located on the side of a highway. During a heated debate about the difference between an elk and a moose, Johan snatched my notebook and sketched, in five deft strokes, a moose. When I asked him to sign it, he stared at me with unalloyed contempt. Signed, such a picture might fetch several thousand dollars, a friend of his explained to me later. I had started to squirm at my stupidity when Johan grabbed the notebook back and signed the moose with a flourish.

Published: September 23, 2007


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