West Side Story
Friday, March 11, 2011 9:55:06 PM
The distinction between Oslo’s east and west sides, again no doubt like other cities, harks back to the industrial age and the location of city factories from the 1600s. The Akerselva river drove much of the industry, which included paper mills, textile factories, breweries and steel manufacturers. (There was previously a saw mill in the suburb next to where I live, which is called “Sagene”, literally meaning “The Saws”.) The number of factories along the river increased from 40 in 1845 to 93 in 1855 (see the picture below). In the beginning of the industrial period, both workers and their owners lived close to the factories, but with time the upper-class who owned the factories moved to homes far from the factories’ noise, smoke and waste.
The wealthy typically relocated to areas west of Akerselva river. Factory workers, however, lived close to the factories, typically on the east side. Why go west? Apparently the wind blows west to east in many European cities, so the west bank kept the noses of the rich and powerful upwind of factory stink. Also, the exodus of the upper-class to the west transpired from the 1840s, roughly coinciding with the building of the royal palace (construction ran from 1824 to 1849) – and the palace, of course, is located to the west of the river. People wished to distance themselves from the working-class, and it was important for social status at that time to live on the ‘right’ side of the tracks.
The arrival of public transport in Oslo from the 1870s made it easier for factory and other business owners to live further away from their workplaces. By the 1880s the class dichotomies along the riverbanks were clear; for example, by 1910 the average income in one east suburb (Sofienberg) was one-tenth of the wealthiest suburb in the west (Frogner).
To accommodate the bulging pockets of the west end’s well-to-do, apartments in the west were built larger, with several parlours, and small rooms at the back for servants. These apartments were more likely to have front gardens and balconies, and lavish façades. Grander living quarters of course made the west-side lifestyle more expensive, and made it difficult for the working class to heave themselves up the social ladder.
Some of these class distinctions, like many of the factory buildings, still exist today. Some old factories have been rehabilitated as apartments, offices and funky event venues. (We live near Norway’s largest childcare centre, which still has “Margarine Factory” emblazoned across its façade.) Many factories closed down only as recently as the 1960s (with some keeping up their assembly lines even into the last decade), and east/west economic and social divides remain. The welfare state and urban renewal in the east have done their best to even out the playing field, so the distinctions are no longer as extreme, but still very much alive.
The west side of Oslo is still considered the affluent part of town, and has significantly higher incomes and property prices. Interestingly, while immigrants from Western Europe and North America are settled fairly evenly around the two sides of the city, new arrivals from Asia and Africa generally stick to the east. As it’s more difficult for those without Norwegian or English language skills (and with very foreign-sounding names) to find employment, the trend continues. Labour force participation is higher in the west, and while 12-13% of households in west-side suburbs have social welfare as their main source of income, this is 16-20% in the east. Real estate offerings are also still similar: in 2001, more than one-third of properties in Frogner had two or more bedrooms, but in Sagene this was just 10%. You also notice in the west-side that the buildings have more decorative trimmings on the façades, and sometimes even a turret, while the buildings in the east are more blocky and bricked.
There are also fewer health problems and higher life expectancy on the west side. In politics, the west has higher voter participation, and a tendency toward right-wing policies (the political party in Norway they prefer is simply called “The Right”), while the east prefer – surprise, surprise – the labour party. First names given to children also differ across the river, with new trends often starting in the west before being adopted in the east. The names of past royalty and Danish names are more common in the west, while the high number of immigrants on the east side mean there are more names imported from English. On culinary matters, a plus from the large immigrant population means there are more restaurants and exotic food stores in the east. So if we extend our Hollywood musical metaphor, you might say it’s the Jets in the west and the Sharks in the east. (Though with a lack of rumbling and singing about just a girl named Maria. Or feeling pretty. )
As you can imagine with these differences persisting, it’s social stereotypes ahoy. People growing up on the east side have little knowledge of life on the west side, and vice versa. East-end natives consider their western counterparts snobbish, spoilt brats who have never worked a hard day in their lives, while the westerners label the east-enders poor, backward rednecks.
Interestingly, the east-west divide led to the creation of what’s called a ‘socialect’ – a dialect or way of speaking that reflects social status more so than geography (the river is, after all, not that wide). The most obvious difference I’ve seen is that east-siders are big fans of ending words in the sound ‘a’, while west-side speech has characteristics that are a bit more Danish. (Pardon me, it’s about to get a little academic...)
• Past tenses of verbs. Some Norwegian verbs take an -et ending in the past tense: “kaste” (to throw) becomes “kastet”. But that’s just on the west bank; in the east it becomes “kasta”.
• Nouns with a definite article. While in English we say “a river” and “the river”, Norwegian gets funky with syntax and instead uses “a river” and “riverthe”. As noted previously, Norwegian nouns can be masculine, feminine or neutral – so “a” noun becomes “en”, “ei or “et” noun respectively. However, the feminine does not exist in the west-side socialect (insert feminist rant here!), so a feminine noun like “a river” is “ei elv” in the east but a more masculine “en elv” in the west. So, when it’s “the river”, west-siders make it “elven” while east-sider turn the “ei” into “a” to make the river “elva”.
• Nouns with a definite article, this time in plural. The Norwegian word for “boy” is “gutt”. In a rule that stumps many a foreigner trying to master the lingo, a plural noun in the indefinite form like “boys” becomes “gutter”, but in the definite form “the boys” becomes “guttene”. But that’s just on the west side, and of course in the east “guttene” is – wait for it – “gutta”.
These differences of course mean you can instantly tell which side of Oslo someone is from. I have heard that some people on the east-side adjust their dialect depending on who they’re speaking to, especially if in a professional situation. The two socialects are, however, moving closer toward each other.
As For Me...
Coming from a city that is also divided by a river but doesn't have the same class distinctions attached to it, I was surprised about how much people care about the east-west split. I was also surprised about how little time it takes to start thinking with that frame of mind.
I recently moved to just west of the river (seriously, the first street parallel to it) from the eastern outskirts of Oslo, so was pleased to have upgraded from working-class to high society. At last! Look out, world, here I come! However, on researching Oslo’s “West Side Story”, I learnt that because factories were located on both edges of the river, workers settled themselves accordingly on both edges. So the true border separating Oslo’s hoity-toity from the unwashed masses is considered to be a street called “Uelands gate” – some four or five blocks west from my apartment.
Sigh, will I never be posh?