The Heart of Aarhus’ Economy Beats in The suburbs

Photography: Juanjo Photography

Photography: Juanjo Photography

- An article about the being a citizen of the suburbs, concrete factories, local pride and entrepreneurship.     By Emma Elisabeth Holtet

Did you know that Aarhus is the biggest industrial city in Denmark with as many as 11.500 workers currently employed? Did you also know that the predicted outsourcing of manual labor has not happened because the industry needs the offices and factories to be in the same place in order to ensure innovation and effectuation? And should this give cause to the people of Aarhus, in particular the residents of the suburbs, to change their perception of the city? 

In an article in Weekendavisen titled “En Usynlig Succes” / “An Invisible Success” journalist Hans Mortensen interviewed historian David Holt Olsen, who could inform the readers of these interesting facts.

David Holt Olsen wonders why the story of the working-man is no longer a part of the city’s self-image and he goes on to explain how today, the old factories and industrial complexes in the city center, have closed down and been converted into creative and cultural institutions – such as Godsbanen and the old Ceres Brewery. However, this does not mean that the industry is no longer active; on the contrary, Aarhus has an extremely active industry – it has simply moved to the suburbs. It is not gone, just out of sight, and so, we don’t regard it as part of the narrative of Aarhus 2017.  

It’s not surprising if you’re startled by these facts and figures – I must admit; I was too. If you live in the city center, then fair enough, it makes sense if you do not think of Aarhus as the industrial hub of Denmark. However, I live in Skejby. A place in the suburbs, where residential areas mix with massive islands of steel and concrete. Where you find complexes like Agro Business Park, Ikea and other industry giants.

In other words: I live slap bang in the middle of Aarhus’ beating industrial heart, and I never thought of it in this way before.

It just so happens that the city’s factories have recently become relevant for my family’s business. We have a retail shop in the city center and a small workshop where we make handmade dog products. Recently demand has exploded and we have struggled to keep up with orders. We realized that in order to expand the business we need someone else to make our products – we need manual labor. We’ve been searching for a few months for an appropriate factory or workshop, that can help us with this and, luckily, last week we found them.

At this point, I have become acutely aware of how fortunate I am to live in a town with so much production right on our doorstep. It makes it a million times easier, cheaper and much more efficient, for us, as a small company, to control and continually develop our production when it is so nearby. In fact, this should be one of the main selling points when presenting Aarhus to budding entrepreneurs.

My move to Skejby was based on necessity, rather than choice – I had a dog and I needed a place to rent. This proved impossible to find in the charming, old town center, so instead of living in a cool, urban city flat, I live in a semi-detached two-floor house next to an Aldi, a parking lot and a big, grey block of flats. 

There is a classic British Poem entitled “Slough” by John Betjeman that has always been one of my favorites, here is a small extract:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now, 
There isn't grass to graze a cow. 
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens, 
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans, 
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

(…)

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

 

In the BBC Series “The Office” which off course takes place in no other town but Slough, the main character and anti-hero Mr. David Brent is angered by this poem. He rages at the fact that the text is unfair toward his beloved place of work and points out that Slough doesn’t need “grass to graze a cow” because they have “one of the biggest dairy producers in the South East down the road”.

Well, in Skejby we have the biggest dairy producer in Europe just down the road. If you are passing through, perhaps on your way to Ikea in search of cheap interior accessories or Swedish meatballs served with brown sauce and jam, you’ll drive past dozens of grey square blocks – some are residential estates, others are factories and offices. At the sight of all this, you could very easily think of John Betjeman’s poem. I moved in about seven months ago and to be honest, in the beginning, I didn’t exactly flaunt the fact that I was a Skejby-resident. Every time someone asked me where I lived, they would follow-up my reply with a slightly sympathetic remark, sometimes even just a small laugh, at best an awkward silence.  At first, this bothered me, and I always retorted “Yeah, it’s not the most charming area, but you know, it’s a great place for the dog – I have a garden and there’s a forest just the other side of the road.” Etc.

That was then. I no longer give a damn.

In fact, I’ve come to be quite fond of the contrasts between all the greenery, the residential areas and the gigantic industrial complexes (that I have a new found appreciation and fondness for). This eclectic mess is now my home and I believe that Skejby and all the other industrial areas of Aarhus deserve a new image. Instead of thinking of them as ugly and charmless, we should take a proper look beyond the concrete slabs, metal roofs and tall chimneys, and consider them for what they are - the beating heart of the infrastructure that holds the town together. These suburban areas feed the companies that drive the city’s economy with manual labor and cheap office space, and provide the residents with power stations, water treatment plants and thousands of workplaces.

I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with David Brent. Rather than putting down the industrial areas, we should cherish them – they are a symbol of the city’s prosperity and they are essential to its’ entrepreneurial environment. In “The Office” spin-off-series “Life on the Road”, David Brent has a band called “Foregone Conclusion” and, naturally, he sings a homage to his home town titled “Slough” – a response to Betjemen’s original poem. The first lines are as follows:    

 

More convenient than a Tesco express

Close to Windsor but the property’s less

Keeps the businesses of Britain great

It's got Europe's biggest trading estate

 

It doesn't matter where you're from

You wanna work? Then come along

The station's just got a new floor

And the motorway runs by your door

The residents of Aarhus’ suburbs should perhaps sing similar praises to their neighborhoods – an anthem for Skejby could go something like this: 

A walk to the center is far

You won’t find a café or bar

But Ikea’s open till eight

And their hotdogs are almost great

 

The night busses maybe a joke

But unlike your friends, you’re not broke

‘Cause your rent is half the rate

Take a taxi if it gets late

 

We may not have specialist stores

But our Aldi has semi-clean floors

And people won’t judge if you buy

Cheap cage-eggs and ready-made Thai

 

We’re the power to the machine

Not a suburban-Aarhus-spleen

Come to Skejby – Jutlands’ Detroit

There’s cheap rent and jobs to exploit

 

(Skejby over and out. Mic drop…)

 

So to all the other residents of suburban Aarhus – next time you pass one of the unattractive, grey factories in your neighborhood, perhaps you shouldn’t think of them as an eyesore, but rather an invaluable institution that your city and, in particular it’s businesses, cannot live without.

Emma Elisabeth Holtet