Hakaniemi (Paddock Cape) isn't all that much to look at, but historically it's one of the more interesting bits of Helsinki, Finland. Home to the working class and plied by communist agitators a century ago, today's Hakaniemi is developing into the most international bit of the city, Helsinki's little imitation of Chinatown.

Home of the Proletariat

Until the 20th century Hakaniemi was just a series of fields and pastures (and hence the name). But with the rapid industrialization of Helsinki at the turn of the century, and the appearance of factories at nearby Sörnäinen, laborers started to immigrate from the countryside and Helsinki suddenly found itself with an acute housing shortage. This shortage was solved by rapidly zoning Hakaniemi -- a part of the larger area known as Kallio -- as a residential district, and the area was soon filled with small wooden houses.

The center of Helsinki is separated from Kallio by a small bay, which is crossed by a bridge somewhat outdatedly known as the "Long Bridge" (Pitkäsilta). This physical division became reflected in class consciousness as well, so Kallio and Hakaniemi north of the bridge became known as the area of the working class proletariat, while the bourgeois lived and worked to the south. The Hakaniemi market square became the scene of many a mass rally, and during the Finnish Civil War the area, especially the nearby Workers' Hall, was a stronghold of the Reds. Much later, when the Social Democrats buried the hatchet and formed a coalition government with the rightist Union Party (Kokoomus), the event was referred to as "crossing the Long Bridge". Even to this day it seems that half the labor unions in Finland have their offices in the buildings surrounding the square.

Conversion to Capitalism

After the 1960s the character of Hakaniemi gradually changed from residential to commercial, and the population of Hakaniemi started to decline from its peak of almost 40,000. The cramped wooden buildings were replaced by modern multi-story buildings and a number of massive organs of the city and state bureaucracy.

There was one last attempt to turn the tide with the construction of Merihaka, widely agreed to be one of the worst abominations of architecture ever to disgrace the city (although my former home of Itä-Pasila still probably takes the top spot). A seaside block of unpainted and unadorned concrete towers, which dysfunctionally attempted to separate ground-level car traffic and upper-level pedestrian walkways, the place is now a site of pilgrimage for photographers who like doing suicidally angsty B&W series of urban anomie.

By the 1990s there were less than 20,000 people living in all of Kallio, and the construction of the Helsinki metro in 1982 did not change things. However, the arrival of a number of refugees from Vietnam and Somalia did: the cheap, cramped apartments rejected by sniffy, upwardly mobile Finns were fine for them, and the main thoroughfare Hämeentie soon started to sprout a wide array of various ethnic shops catering to their needs. Vii Voan, a Vietnamese supermarket that imports its own goods and eschews unnecessary fluff like advertising and fancy display cases, is an institution among Helsinki students who subsist on cases of cheap instant noodles. In fact, the other significant democratic component is now young students, some of whom have even set up communes in the area.

Things to See and Do

Not much, really. There are three primary reasons to come to Hakaniemi:

  1. Battling with bureaucracy (Hakaniemi is, among many others, home to Finland's equivalent of the DMV)
  2. Buying ethnic food during the day
  3. Buying cheap booze in the bars at night
But every single bus, tram and subway car heading towards the East still passes through Hakaniemi, so take a moment to glance out the window and think of all who have lived, worked and died here.

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