The Breadline

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The breadline runs through the middle of the Kallio district of Helsinki. On Wednesdays and Fridays, when the Hursti Charitable Association’s regular food distributions take place, queues build up along the pavement of Helsinginkatu all morning. Once a month, there is a special distribution for students.

For some, these queues are associated with the crisis of the early 1990s, when the collapse of trade with a collapsing Soviet Union and the implosion of a homegrown financial bubble sank Finland into economic depression. At its worst, unemployment was five times its pre-crisis level and GDP had shrunk by 14%. The memory of this time came up in conversations during my stay in Helsinki, and while the Helsinginkatu distributions turn out to be older than this – their founder, Veikko Hursti, began handing out food to needy people in the city back in 1967 – it seems that lengthening breadlines during the crisis years left an impression.

Today, Kallio is one of those places you find in most European capitals: a working class district close to the city centre where small apartments and low rents attract the young, creative and broke, until their activities in turn begin to attract those with more money to spend, and the rents begin to rise. No one hates this process more than the artists and activists who are its catalysts, and everywhere it is a source of angst.

The Kallio Movement began here, a year ago, when the city council proposed to move the Hursti food distributions out of the area and off the streets. There had been lobbying from a longstanding local society: the lengthy queues were causing ‘unreasonable inconvenience’ to residents. One resident disagreed and wrote a post on Facebook, a proposal for a movement that would represent the larger group of people living in the area who had no desire to see it ‘cleaned up’. Within three days, over five thousand people had signed up to this proposal. The network that formed as a result has campaigned successfully to defend the food distributions and a local refugee reception centre. It is also organising block parties and flea markets.

One thing struck me, hearing and reading about the origins of the Kallio Movement: there is a clear feeling that something would have changed for the worse if the evidence of poverty were moved out of sight. The breadline acts as a living statistic, harder to ignore than a set of numbers in an official report: so long as people are hungry, its defenders say, this inconvenient reality should be a visible part of the society in which we live.

My host in Kallio, Anu remembers an explosion of flea markets and street stalls during the crisis of the 1990s, as people looked for ways to make ends meet.

There is an ambiguous overlap between the improvised economic activity that may constitute a type of resilience in times of crisis and the forms of activity embraced as a lifestyle choice by the artists, activists and hipsters whose presence brings attention to an area like Kallio.

This ambiguity shows up in another of the projects that people kept telling me about in Helsinki. The first Restaurant Day was in May 2011, the same month the Kallio Movement was getting started, and the plan spread in a similar way over social media. It’s one of those plans that’s simple enough it can travel by word of mouth: for one day, open your own restaurant, anywhere you choose. In parks and clothes shops, at kitchen tables or in a basket from a first floor balcony, people took up the invitation, sharing their passion for food with friends, neighbours and anyone who came along.

It’s easy to see why this would catch people’s imaginations, resonating as it does with the buzz of pop-up culture that has spread from grassroots DIY activity to the blogs of every branding agency in the western hemisphere. I remember MsMarmiteLover, founder of The Underground Restaurant, coming along to the first Social Media vs the Recession meetup I hosted in London in early 2009. A year later, when we were working on the Space Makers project at Brixton Village, it was a one-day festival of pop-up restaurants that gave the first clue to the new popularity the indoor market was about to experience. What’s brilliant about Restaurant Day is the power and lightness with which it scales: with only the barest infrastructure, it has become one of the biggest things happening in the city, providing a strength in numbers that allows unofficial restaurants to go overground. It doesn’t surprise me that, one year on, the idea has spread to seventeen countries around the world.

Yet this is not all there is to say about Restaurant Day. For one thing, while the creativity and imagination people put into their pop-up restaurants is what grabs the attention, it is also a form of non-confrontational civil disobedience: through that strength in numbers and an appeal to common sense, it challenges the strict rules by which the making and serving of food is usually regulated. This is not an accident. The idea began as a protest, a response to reports of small restaurants and kiosks around Helsinki being fined or shut down for minor violations of these regulations. You could call it an occupation of this regulatory space: a challenge to the authorities to cede ground, or else evict an idea that people have taken to their hearts.

This point has not been lost among the success that followed. You can find Restaurant Day written up as a case study in reports on Helsinki as a ‘Smart City’, its authorities adapting flexibly to networked initiatives that stimulate urban culture. Given the role played by Nokia in pulling the country out of the depression of the early 1990s – at its peak, the company made up 4% of GDP and 20% of the corporation tax take – it seems likely that Finland is ahead of many countries in taking seriously the power of networked technologies and the social possibilities they can make room for. But I want to suggest another take on the significance of Restaurant Day.

Even with the breadline, Helsinki feels about as far away from economic crisis as anywhere in the Eurozone. Yet beyond the hipster pop-up appeal and the Smart City civic start-up angle, there is an edge of future reenactment to Restaurant Day. Think of it as a quarterly rehearsal. For what? For how we make a good job of getting poorer. As Kevin Carson writes in The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, the effect of regulation is very often to create tyrannies of scale: the overheads imposed make lightweight, small-scale, DIY or part-time enterprises almost impossible to sustain. It’s a point echoed by Dmitry Orlov in his darkly entertaining commentaries on life in a collapsing superpower, drawn from his experiences in first the USSR and now the USA. ‘Before the collapse happens,’ he says, ‘the solutions that would work after the collapse are uncompetitive and illegal.’

The unlicensed restaurants popping up in Helsinki and elsewhere are, if not illegal, then deep into a grey area of regulation. That this might be a source of resilience is neither the intention behind them, nor the reason why they have proven so successful, but it may yet turn out to be an unintended consequence of their success.

  • The Dmitry Orlov quote is from Akshay Ahuja’s interview with him in the new volume of Dark Mountain which comes out next month.
  • The background photograph is a photo of one of a truck belonging to the Hursti Charitable Association.
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Posted: 12 July, 2012

Author: Dougald

Category: Blog, Reflections

+1 Comment
  1. [...] piece was written for The Resilients project and the original post is open for [...]

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