Moving to Copenhagen’s trendy Vesterbro quarter feels like you’ve narrowly missed a wild party, and somebody’s already cleared away the liquor and mopped up the floor.
Once it was a working-class neighbourhood with ramshackle apartments and rife with drug addiction. But gentrification marches on and today it’s been transformed by organic burger joints and skyrocketing rents. Nostalgic for grittier days, locals can point to tangible losses – a tobacco-stained bodega here, a greengrocer there.
But few outwardly mourn the loss of Vesterbro’s most important legacy – its history of civil disobedience. Luckily it’s being unearthed. From resistance fighters in World War II to the modern-day locals who transformed a used ambulance into a safe injection facility, new museum initiatives are memorialising Vesterbro as a site of resistance.
By re-telling these stories, we have a better way of judging whether the neighbourhood’s true spirit still remains.
Vesterbro’s seedier past has been toned down by gentrification, but sex shops can still be found on the main street. Photo: Peter Stanners
Born in a radio shop
During the war you could tell how far down the road the Germans were by the racket of clattering bedpans on Istedgade, Vesterbro’s central street.
And that’s not the only thing locals threw out their windows when the Germans occupied Denmark during the war. They dropped leaflets declaring “You can take Rome and Paris – but Stalingrad and Istedgade will never surrender.” This powerful slogan of defiance became firmly cemented in neighbourhood lore and is unfurled on a banner every liberation day.
Vesterbro’s disdain for the Germans was no secret, but the spirit of resistance throbbed far more deeply through the district’s streets than many ever realised.
It’s 1942 and a crowd is gathered around a small radio shop on Istedgade 31, straining to hear a BBC broadcast in Danish. Europe is in the throes of World War II and the Germans have already occupied Denmark for two years. While it’s not technically illegal to play the broadcasts, the German and Danish Police don’t like it and disperse the crowds by invoking traffic laws.
But they don’t close the shop, Stjerne Radio. By the following year, it has become a meeting point for freedom fighters planning sabotage attacks against their German occupiers.
Carl Munck bought the shop in 1942 and hired Josef Søndergaard as manager. The two were old friends from the Royal Life Guards and both opposed the Danish government’s ‘co-operation’ policy with the Nazis. They quickly gathered a small group and started making an illegal newspaper in Stjerne Radio’s back room. ‘De Frie Danske’ (The Free Danes), was circulated in secret. They also attached a loudspeaker to the outer wall of the shop to blast the BBC broadcasts.
By early 1943, Søndergaard had helped establish the beginnings of the resistance group Holger Danske, which over time would grow to 700 members. Lacking ammunition and supplies, they had to learn how to make bombs from the Communist resistance group BOPA, but completely failed at their first attempt.
By the summer, Holger Danske had already performed around 30 sabotage acts, concentrating on small factories in Vesterbro. It was the neighbourhood they knew best and where they could easily glean which manufacturers were collaborating with the Germans.
That same year Søndergaard was arrested and accused of sabotage, but was freed when two resistance fighters impersonated plainclothes policemen and demanded him back for interrogation.
The group’s major act was the destruction of Frederiksberg’s exhibition building, Forum Copenhagen, which the Germans had planned to convert into a barracks for 2000 soldiers. In August 1943, the group demolished the building by planting bombs in a beer crate. It remained a ruin for the rest of the occupation, a testament to Danish defiance.
The group was left exposed after the attack and the core members fled to Sweden, leaving Stjerne Radio behind. Holger Danske was adopted by another freedom fighter and it swelled to the largest resistance group in the country. Søndergaard died in 1946, likely from injuries he sustained when blowing up Forum Copenhagen.
Despite their suspicions, the Germans never shut down Stjerne Radio, says Peter Birkelund from the National Archives.
“The authorities knew that it represented anti-German sentiment, but nobody knew that it was a hotbed of resistance fighters, which is how it could keep surviving.”
The shop actually survived until 1962, when it was sold by Munck’s daughter and became a kiosk. According to Birkelund, the shop’s history remained buried until a schoolgirl learned the story from old locals and wrote a project about it.
The shop’s vintage façade was recently reconstructed and is now a mini-museum dedicated to Stjerne Radio’s activities. Now, Vesterbro’s story of resistance is on full display.
Rebels transformed drug policy
Vesterbro’s history of civil disobedience doesn’t stop with World War II. Almost 70 years after Stjerne Radio’s days of resistance, locals defied the authorities again, this time to help the area’s drug users.
Michael Lodberg Olsen is the founder of Fixelancen, an old ambulance that was converted into Denmark’s first safe injection facility. Brimming with good humour, he’s almost like a bearded, fairy godmother to Vesterbro. As we walk around the small pocket of Vesterbro still frequented by sex workers and drug addicts, he never manages more than a few minutes before someone stops to chat.
“We used to collect between 8,000 to 12, 000 used needles from the ground every week, people were injecting in the open and dying on the street,” Olsen says.
He knew something had to be done, but for 20 years the state and the city council maintained that a safe injection room wasn’t legal. Instead, he took matters into his own hands. In 2008 he opened a café with healthy food for drug users and allowed them to safely inject in the toilets. While the police were happy because it kept drugs off the streets, the authorities weren’t. It was shut down after 18 months.
Undeterred, Olsen rallied together a group and created Fixelancen. In 2011, they transformed a used ambulance into a safe place to inject, and parked it in downtown Vesterbro. Staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, no one knew what would happen. He recounts a story where a doctor began to panic at the mention of arrest.
“‘Oh my god, arrested? I can’t get arrested, I have to pick up my kids!'” Olsen imitates the doctor’s reaction with a laugh. “He had totally forgotten that what we were doing was possibly illegal.”
“We had put it to the test and to find out if a safe injection facility would be allowed or not,” says Olsen. “Our defence strategy was to say that we were there to save lives – because who could possibly be against that?”
Luckily, they never ended up having to plead their case.
“The politicians shouted at us in the beginning, but we soon won them over and they made a law permitting councils to set up safe injection facilities. It turns out that it wasn’t illegal, but for two decades, the politicians wrongly informed us that it was.”
The group ended up cooperating with the government to create two mobile injection vans, and closing the original project.
But Olsen isn’t happy with how it’s been co-opted. After the creation of permanent injection rooms on Istedgade and Halmtorvet, the mobile drug rooms have been standing still, parked in the same Vesterbro spots. Olsen thinks they’re needed all over the city.
Soon, they’ll be completely replaced by a giant injection facility, currently being constructed on Vesterbro’s Halmtorvet. He calls it a ‘factory’ that will only attract more drug dealers to the neighbourhood.
“They’re creating the largest safe injection facility in perhaps the smallest open drug scene in the world, and focusing all that drug use in one big space.”
Olsen wishes that civil society were more involved in the community efforts, and worries about the impact of letting the state take over yet another welfare programme.
“200 years of welfare was actually created by civil society taking a stand. The story of Fixelancen, the story of Stjerne Radio, is the real story of how we created the welfare system in Denmark,” he says.
“Now, we are too fat and rich and think that democracy means dropping bombs in foreign countries and voting every four years. We have to reimagine how to create a relevant society.”
He’s not the only one worried. “Istedgade has surrendered,” reads a bright-yellow sticker plastered on a bin – a cynical subversion of the World War II resistance slogan.
Søndergaard probably wouldn’t recognise Istedgade today, bedecked with upscale wine bars and ‘hipster’ hostels designed with Instagram in mind.
“Istedgade has surrendered.”
However, there are still signs of diversity and the old rebellious spirit. The anarchist organisation behind the bookshop Bogcaféen Halmtorvet was surprised to find an affordable site for its bookstore-cum-café amidst Vesterbro’s rising rents.
It’s the gentrification story reversed – a boutique wine shop closed down, and an anarchist group took over. Anti-establishment books fill former wine shelves, visitors can sip filter coffee on sleek design tables, and they’ve merely flipped the old sign over, until they can afford a new one. Frank and Ronni, two members of the organisation behind the shop, like its hybrid aesthetic.
“All kinds of people should feel welcome, that’s why we didn’t paint it all black,” says Ronni with a laugh.
“We hope to give Vesterbro back some lost character,” says Frank. They acknowledge the problems posed by gentrification – middle-class neighbours, for example, who complain about the space taken up by the soup kitchen’s garbage bins.
But nor are they sounding the death knell for the neighbourhood’s spirit. “It’s always had a mix of expensive and cheap. And all kinds of people are really embracing the store,” says Frank.
The aim was to reinstate a space for people to discuss anarchist themes in Vesterbro, which hasn’t had an official anarchist presence for over a decade.While the bookstore is not officially involved in projects, they’ve been involved in helping refugees in the face of increasingly tighter asylum restrictions. Just a block away, the central station was where many Danes recently committed another act of resistance, by illegally helping arriving refugees onward on their journey to Sweden.
Olsen is still helping the community on his own terms. He recently customised bins with appendages to hold empty bottles and cans so that they can be picked up for their deposit, so collectors don’t have to rummage through the rubbish. The council liked the idea and is rolling out the redesign across the city.
He also started ILLEGAL magazine, which is sold by drug addicts to help them buy more drugs. “We know they’re going to buy drugs, so they may as well raise the money in a way that doesn’t involve robbing someone,” says Olsen. The magazine was recently tried out in London, with success.
The original Fixelancen is now immortalised in the National History Museum and remains an important reminder of the power of local resistance. Olsen hopes its message will not be lost on us.
“It’s on display to ask an important question,” he says. “Why was it up to locals to create the first injection room, when Denmark has one of the biggest welfare systems in the world?” M