Worker's housing in Siglufjörður - A vanished World
In Siglufjörður, the northernmost municipality in Iceland, three workers' apartment buildings were built in 1948. The street was Hvanneyrarbraut and thirty families, 130 individuals, now owned homes. For the first time, ordinary workers were able to acquire a decent apartment in town. "Worker's apartments were built, and an intimate, cohesive community of people was created," says Albert Einarsson, who was born in 1949 in Siglufjörður, the same year as his parents moved into a basement apartment in a workers' apartment on Hvanneyrarbraut.
The herring bonanza in Sigló drew loads of workers. The number of registered residents was 4,000 in the middle of the last century and a similar number of migrant workers stayed temporarily in the town. Judging by descriptions of that time, Siglufjörður was a bustling sea of people with seventy shops and no less than two hat shops. This was followed by the need for housing that the trade union movement met by construction housing such as the buildings on Hvanneyrarbraut.
Albert on Hvanneyrarbraut 62
Albert Einarsson has lived in Norway for twenty-seven years, but his mind has not emigrated at all and childhood memories from Verkó appear in his poems and recollection. On Tröllaskagi's website, Albert describes the apartment he grew up in: “One bedroom, kitchen and living room, and of course the bathroom, pantry and corridor. The living room was always closed, so we couldn’t play in there, mom wanted to have one peaceful space in the apartment. Dad and Mom ruled the bedroom. Sigga Dísa (his sister) and I were there for the first few years. She's two years younger than me. After Sigga Dísa and I were old enough to need more space, Dad and Mom started decorating a bedroom for us in the pantry, which was off the kitchen. The shelves containing food and stuff were taken down and two bunk beds installed. The pantry was rather narrow, so the bunks protruded out of the doorway and into the kitchen. The bunks were swide enough for us kids, and this was now quite a difference. The shelves were then installed in the storage room under the stairs. It was a tiny space, nothing really, and you could hardly stand upright except at the door, but Dad still used the storage as a workshop, or something. All the apartments upstairs had storage rooms downstairs in the basement."
Brynhildur on Hvanneyrarbraut 54
Albert was twelve years old, and his family moved to a larger house up town when Brynhildur Baldursdóttir was born in 1961 on Hvanneyrarbraut number 54. Brynhildur is the youngest of five siblings and the only child of her mother who never left and still lives at Sigló. At the age of twenty she had Óli who always went by the name Óli Biddýar and the only time she thought about moving from Siglufjörður was when her mother died and no family member lived in Siglufjörður anymore. Those worries came about because she wanted to be closer to Óli and her grandchildren in Reykjavík. Brynhildur never had to leave seeing as Óli and his family moved back to Sigló; her little family was reunited.
An ever-changing world
Brynhildur greets all those who come her way in Siglufjörður. If she does not know the young newcomer at Frida’s Cafe on Holy Thursday, she will surely know her parents after a bit of genealogy. During the Easter holidays, the number of people in the town increases, relatives and emigrants return with skis and snowboards and some even own a house or apartment. Brynhildur has worked as an information officer at the town office for as long as she can remember and has followed with stoic calm the constant adaptation of her hometown to changing business practices. Herring came and went and came and went, the quota disappeared, and the fish processing plant closed but tourism is growing, and the population is on the rise; Siglufjörður now has one thousand and three hundred registered inhabitants.
A single mother on the move
When Brynhildur was six years old, the family's circumstances suddenly changed when her father died after a short illness. Kristín, her mother, who until then worked at home with the children, had to take care of her family alone. Kristín lost the apartment on Hvanneyrarbraut and they lived here and there while Kristín worked in numerous shops and saved money for a down payment in a new apartment building on Hvanneyrarbraut 58. While Kristín worked and saved the family lived “in town” but Brynhildur always sought company “back home” in Bakki neighborhood where her friends lived. The apartment blocks in Bakki were still her “home”. Staying there was just great and never having to pick anything up outside the neighborhood, Brynhildur says. In her youth a bakery and the local Co-Op were just around the corner.
Brynhildur was twenty when she had her only child, Óli, and bought a one-bedroom basement apartment in the apartment block in Bakki, which made sense given the rental price on offer in town at the time. When Óli was almost two years old, she met her husband, Jóhann the cook, and together they moved to a two-room apartment at number 54, the very same apartment where her parents had lived when she was born. Brynhildur had already lived in three apartments in Verkó on Hvanneyrarbraut and in the end she had come full circle, back to the apartment where her life had started twenty-two years earlier. Next to the young family in the next block of flats, her mother, Kristín, lived in the apartment she had bought by herself for the money she made working in the shops.
The kids of Bakki
Behind the apartments on Hvanneyrarbraut there is a field on a slope that ends in a bank above the rocky shore. Under the banks, they played with Matchbox cars, jumping between rocks by the seaside. The kids played ball and other games in the field. In fact, everyone usually played together, regardless of age, and the adults often came out and took part in the games. It was precisely this community that was so fascinating to Brynhildur and Albert who describes a day on Hvanneyrarbraut in this way:
"In the afternoon the Fishermen's show was on the radio (maybe only once a week). On a fine day we sat in Elías' yard and listened to the show and when the show ended, Elías took out the accordion and played the whole show for us again. We once decided to make something more out of it and offered refreshments. We mixed juice and "drink" (which was a powder with sugar that turned into soda when it was poured into water) and cut a piece of licorice that we had managed to buy at the Co-Op in two. We sold the licorice for the same price as one whole licorice and for a glass of the "drink" the price was the same. We didn’t become rich from this business, as there are few customers with purchasing power."
A farewell to arms
Brynhildur and Albert's Siglufjörður was divided into four neighborhoods. There was Húnahverfi in the southern part of town, Brekkuhverfi by the church, Villimannahverfi and the previously mentioned Bakki to the north. Battles were fought between neighborhoods. Brynhildur describes peace negotiations between the warring parties when the boys of Bakki decided to rely on her and her friend who was twelve years old. The girls of Bakki carrying a white flag led the boys along the mountain road opposite the enemy army and a peace agreement was reached. Brynhildur is almost certain this was the last neighborhood battle, and it was a farewell to arms after that.
The division of the town into neighborhoods was so clear at the time that no less than four New Year's bonfires were needed in Siglufjörður when Brynhildur and Albert were growing up. One year there was an uproar when the Huns from Húnahverfi stole from our bonfire, says Brynhildur. She remembers one of the fathers from Verkó mad with rage, storming down into Húnahverfi and recovering the stolen material; the Bakki bonfire regained its dignity.
The old apartment at 54
Brynhildur got to see her old apartment at number 54, where a young mother named Eva lives. This Easter weekend, Eva's daughter is competing with Brynhildur's older granddaughter in handball in Ísafjörður and of course Brynhildur knows Eva like everyone in Siglufjörður. They exchange news of the tournament. Brynhildur recalls how the apartment was organized in her time. Eva has just finished moving the wall, enlarging the bathroom and removing the pantry, which in Albert's childhood was turned into a sleeping area with bunk beds. In the corridor at Eva's, a poem is inscribed on the wall that begins like this: At home where love lives and memories are created…
When Kristín, Brynhildur's mother, moved into a retirement home, she and Jóhann bought a bigger apartment a little further down the street, mainly to have enough space for the family, Brynhildur's siblings and Óli who lived at the time in Reykjavík. People need somewhere to stay when they visit their hometown. But now Óli has returned home to Sigló, and has his own house so she doesn’t really need all this space where stuff tends to accumulate. Sometimes it occurs to her to move back to Verkó. "Maybe," she says gently, as it might happen were she to raise her voice, but she has a twinkle in her eye. What happens will remain a mystery.
Another side of this story, however, is an uncomfortable fact. Today, countless families and single parents in Iceland live under similar circumstances as Brynhildur and Kristín did in their time. The difference, however, is that before the abolition of the Workers' Building Fund, low-income workers and single parents could acquire a secure home for their families with the help of housing loans. Today, that possibility is long gone; the hardest-hit families use up to seventy percent of their income to pay the rent. Society has failed to provide safe and affordable housing.
Albert moved to Norway in search of better living conditions. But his mind is at home in Iceland and he converts his childhood memories into poetry. The poem about the New Year's bonfire can be found in the poetry collection, Abbi, Poems from the past in Siglufjörður, which he published last year:
for New Year's bonfires
to burn an old year
burn old memories
The children collect for the bonfire
Our barrels were stolen!
They were in another bonfire
Under cover of darkness
Two and two kids
On the mountain
In the dark
Two barrels on a sledge
Went across the hill
In our bonfire
Our big bonfire
Our biggest bonfire
Tiny, treading lightly
Short steps ticking
With fire material
A shoe box full of material
Up the mountain
Up to the bonfire.