Did the Virus Kill Helsinki? I Don’t Think So.

Debating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities has occupied the urban discussion airspace across the globe. Finland is no exception. The mainstream narrative, also boosted by the media, is that people are fleeing cities in search of a healthier life in the exurbs, if not venturing even further to the solitude of the countryside. And they might not be returning, we’re warned. Migration data from the worst lockdown months hints that increasingly many are preferring to look at cities from the rearview mirrors of their cars. Helsinki and other urban hotspots have lost their allure. The fear of the virus has killed the city.

Well, hello from the graveyard.

I’ve spent most of the time since Finland’s “lockdown” measures were announced in late March in the Kallio district of central Helsinki. I thought, perhaps, someone might fancy some insider experience from the struggling urban heartlands during the extraordinary past few months.

Normally, we like to bring up Kallio in urban debates all the time. So, why not now also? Kallio’s magic is that it’s not only the most densely built and populated environment in Finland, but it is also the most youthful area in Helsinki, with a large population of young adults. Appropriately, Kallio is sometimes said to be a lens into the future — an intriguing idea for imagining the post-corona city.

Kallio just before the restrictions were starting to roll out.

Life in the “lockdown city” began in mid-March when the pandemic triggered a national state of emergency. Schools, libraries, and many other public services were closed, and soon also bars and restaurant dining rooms. Events were all cancelled. The entire Helsinki region was even separated from the rest of the country for two and a half weeks.

Us Kallio residents, along with the rest of Helsinkians, suddenly found ourselves stuck at home with nowhere to go. It didn’t take long for the first commentators to declare the end of urbanism as we know it.

Indeed, the escalation of the emergency was a blow to the belly for a neighborhood known as the place where it’s always happening. Real-life encounters became dangerous overnight. The trajectory for everyday life threatened to narrow to nothing more than sitting at home in our small apartments from morning until evening, surviving the work day on the couch or at the dining table, and then switching to social Zoom calls to grieve about how much we all wanted things to get back to the way they were.

If you follow the let’s-ditch-cities storyline, that’s what really happened. End of story.

But from here, it sure didn’t look like as if it were the end. More like the beginning of a new chapter.

A spring walk in Mustikkamaa, outside of the rush hours. Photo: Monica Vaccari

Just a couple of days in, it seemed that hardly anyone was going to quarantine themselves indoors. It was as if people stayed in only long enough for them to dig out their winter sportswear, before wandering out to meet friends for a walk, run, or bike ride.

Around where I live, people gravitated to the recreational areas of Mustikkamaa and Töölönlahti, making them popular destinations of the corona spring. They and other routes were so popular that it became a public health talking point whether people should actually be strolling in such crowded areas. It could be an easy opportunity for the virus to spread. I don’t know if anyone ever caught it this way, but it sure was an opportunity to do things with others, be seen, and run into familiar faces.

In the old pre-corona days, we’d often be doing all of that in restaurants, bars, and cafés. Habits that were all now very much erased. Bars and nightclubs were shut down entirely in early April, and restaurants didn’t have it much easier either. They could keep their outdoor seating areas open, but this wasn’t worth much, as it was way too cold to sit outside. Restaurants were only left with the option of serving takeout.

I like to think that I’m a fairly average Kallio resident when I admit to being a fan of eating out. There’s the occasional dinner with friends, and I always enjoy stepping outside for lunch. It’s the perfect break in the workday and always a neighborly occasion of sorts — even those times when you eat alone. In a neighborhood composed of many small apartments, people are likely to form emotional bonds with the various venues that offer additional living and dining spaces in their life.

Coffee and snacks, only to go.

Suddenly, the corona restrictions were about to tear these bonds apart. The worst-case scenario was a wave of bankruptcies, meaning losses for everyone, and possibly irreversible changes to the neighborhood’s character.

Campaigns were started to help restaurants survive the turmoil. I also wanted to do something and came up with the idea of compiling an online list of restaurants that bravely kept their kitchens open to serve takeout despite the difficult circumstances. I hoped that a single interface would make it easier for people to support their local businesses.

I thought I could build up the list in no time, anticipating I’d only find a handful of open doors here and there. How wrong I was.

“Thank you for your order”.

It turned out that most Kallio restaurants chose to remain open for takeout. And not only because of economic necessity. I had underestimated the strength of the bonds between us residents and our beloved restaurateurs.

The takeout business breathed more life into the early weeks of the lockdown city. There were now people lingering on the streets waiting for their orders. Sometimes you’d share a laugh with other patrons or bump into a friend passing by. During one memorable takeout wait, the restaurant owner’s preschooler entertained us with vivid stories of his marvelous adventures.

People in line for their bakery treats.

I soon learned that there was more I had been wrong about with my restaurant project. I had assumed the number of open venues would decrease as weeks went by. Quite the opposite happened.

While updating my list, I discovered that some initially closed restaurants didn’t stay that way for long. After a week or two, they were back in business. Others expanded their opening hours. Some cooked up interesting new concepts and service models. One Chinese restaurant, for example, introduced a monthly lunch subscription and 10 lunches pass. There were also experiments with restaurants opening takeout service at addresses other than their own premises. New restaurants and cafes even opened during the lockdown or soon after it. The restaurant apocalypse many had feared was nowhere on the horizon.

During the lockdown, food trucks and other mobile food vendors parked along the popular recreational routes. This one is a new boat cafe that found a good (and otherwise underperforming) spot in Kalasatama, on the route between Kallio and Mustikkamaa recreational island.

An amusing detail was that during the bars-strictly-closed-and-takeout-only weeks a couple of bars figured out they could stay open by declaring themselves shops where you could buy bottles of beer. It was a sight for sore eyes to see people hanging out sipping beer at the doorstep of a pub, almost as if they’d never closed at all.

This bar didn’t only settle for “takeout beer”, they also expanded to beer shlushies.

Sadly, they really did close until June. Kallio wouldn’t be Kallio without its wide variety of lively bars. They function as natural meeting places for the young residents and have also made Kallio the entire city’s favorite place to grab a drink. But besides those one or two quasi-open bars serving takeout beer, they were all now deeply asleep in a corona coma.

People, however, found no time to rest. The first warm days of April saw the neighborhood’s parks spotted with picnic groups, continuing the tradition of meeting over social drinks. At any park you visited, you could watch flocks of picnickers coordinately inch along the fresh green grass and barely warm rocks, the sun’s rays their compass. Someone seemed to always have handily brought a portable speaker to maintain the merry atmosphere with a steady stream of energetic tunes.

By late May, you could smell summer in the air, and, contrary to popular belief, Kallio was still alive. Certainly crippled, but by no means the kind of corpse that corona-ridden cities were often portrayed as.

The most intense lockdown period wasn’t, in fact, that bad at all. All the shops I needed remained open, and so did other services I rely on like my local gym, barber shop, and dry cleaners. Other services began bouncing back in May and June. The local library opened in early May. Kallio’s art galleries began opening their doors in June and so did the public saunas. The first courses, workshops, and hobby activities were also reintroduced in June. The traditional flea market in the park just down my street grew week by week, from the first handful of vendors in early May to shortly become the sprawling trading festival it always has been.

Every Sunday, Dallapé park transforms into a fantastically chaotic fleamarket.

Of course, things weren’t exactly as they’d been before. The lockdown weeks proved to be highly toxic for the entertainment and cultural activities scene. Kallio is an urban-culture epicenter in Helsinki, with activities ranging from club concerts and DJ acts, to resident-organized block parties and blockbuster festivals like Flow. Pretty much everything in the eventscape was canceled and things haven’t fully recovered as event restrictions are still in place today. There have been heart-warming community-led initiatives, such as crowdfunding, to support Helsinki’s cultural actors, but the urban-culture industry will indisputably still need heavy economic support to pull through this mess.

Art isn’t typically sold on the street like this in Helsinki. A symptom of the hard times within the arts & culture community, or just corona-inspired action for using public space in a new way? Or both?

But while at the industry scale things seem foggy at best, it’s worth noting that the hard times didn’t stop people from organizing events and cultural activities.

While the news about Italians singing on their balconies was circulating the world, in Helsinki we were playing Darude’s “Sandstorm” from ours. In Kallio, this was soon followed by a saxophonist jumping on a rooftop to play “Careless Whisper” for the neighborhood. This spontaneous concert went on to evolve into a series of rooftop concerts with visiting artists.

The first in a series of Axel Kalland’s rooftop concerts. Photo: Axel Kalland

Things, of course, jumped to a whole new level at the start of June when the bars and restaurants were carefully allowed to open their doors again. This immediately, or at the latest by mid-July, brought smaller club gigs back to traditional concert venues.

By June it was also warm enough to stay outside late. This was fertile ground for the mushrooming of all types of informal events and parties in Kallio’s parks, adjacent recreational areas, and brownfields. The phenomenon eventually got so big that, by August, the media reported some residents were fed up with the “loud and late” techno parties.

The tip of an old cargo harbor just next to Kallio was one of the stages for the blossoming informal nightlife.

Sompasauna, another popular venue, also re-opened in early June, a move that was welcomed with open arms. The place became so popular that you sometimes had to stand in line to enter any of the saunas. The late weekend hours were especially busy as the newly opened bars closed by 11pm, leaving the rest of the night for informal afterparties and activities.

During the summer months, public events also became somewhat legal again, resulting in the reintroduction of larger outdoor concerts and non-underground parties, like the series of popular techno picnics in local parks.

And while we’re at this, I also must add that the impact of the virus hasn’t been entirely negative. The side effects of Finland’s strategy for reopening bars and restaurants was a win for public life and the liveliness of Kallio’s streets. At the beginning of June, bars and restaurants were allowed to open 50% of their indoor seating capacity, moving to 75% three weeks later. In mid-July, most restrictions were lifted completely. But from day one, there were basically no restrictions on outdoor seating (apart from opening hours), which inspired many restaurateurs and bar owners to make sure they had as much terrace space as possible.

This corner in Karhupuisto park has always been greatly underused, but this summer it’s been taken over by a terrace.

When the bars were back in business, Vaasankatu, the well-known bar street at the corner of my building, immediately turned into an outdoor living room of sorts, its sidewalks lined with groups of people and a soundscape of happy conversations and laughter. The same happened throughout Kallio. The virus brought more terraces to the neighborhood and more people to enjoy them than ever before.

Day one of the bars and restaurants reopening across from my building. There are plenty of more terraces on the street.

Coincidentally or not, the corona-summer terraces have also made the streets of Kallio — and in central Helsinki more broadly — much greener than they were before. The trend has been to creatively include plants and colorful flowers into the street furniture settings, all adding up to pleasantly soft streetscapes.

As I write this, I can’t help but wonder where I might find the off-putting city we hear so much about. The past months in Kallio have demonstrated a fascinating story of adaptation and resilience, ending with today’s life being not much different than the days before the pandemic. The neighborhood has remained lively, sociable, constantly interesting, and is clearly packed with people who won’t let one virus get in their way of having a good time.

When returning back home on a late Thursday evening in June, I ran into a terrific spontaneous street concert. Another wonderful Kallio surprise.

This is not to undermine the severity of the pandemic or to suggest that there aren’t many pressing urban problems that need to be solved, such as the difficult situation vulnerable and marginalized people are facing in the midst of rising unemployment and diminished access to social services. Or figuring out how to keep public transportation alive when riders are still sticking to their districts or choosing other means of travel.

Yes, difficult questions about where cities are headed remain.

But the death of cities is not one of them.

2 thoughts on “Did the Virus Kill Helsinki? I Don’t Think So.”

  1. As you know, one of the most famous fallacies in the theory of argumentation is the straw man, and this blogpost represents exactly that. There has been no narrative of the death of cities – to the contrary, everybody seems to feel it necessary to emphasise that urbanisation cannot be reversed. Instead, multi-locality can increase, as people also see the danger inherent in urbanisation and want to increase the flexibility in their living. It cannot be denied, however, that the pandemic has hit the very essence of urbanity: density, diversity and connectedness. It remains to be seen how cities will cope with this new situation that has made ideologists like Glaeser sound utterly naive.

    1. Kimmo, I’m glad you enjoy my writing! I completely agree that the real impact of the pandemic remains to be seen. Until then, we’ll have to cope with laying out different ideas and observations about any possible changes to the pre-virus urbanization pattern. Perhaps we’ll see people adopt new lifestyles, perhaps not. I see no shortage of stories and commentators humoring the idea that they might.

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