I was hanging out with a few of the staffers from the Helsinki City Museum the other day, and I asked them about their favorite places in Helsinki. First Tove Vesterbacka said anywhere along the harbor; to her Helsinki means water. She also mentioned Linnanmäki, the amusement park—it sits on a rocky cliff and the ferris wheel stands out in the skyline from many places in the city. Then Sari Saresto talked about her route home from work by bicycle, from city centre to east Helsinki. The landscape changes so much along the way, from the classical architecture of Senate Square, to the industrial buildings along Sörnäinen, to the island of Kulosaari, and then on to residential east Helsinki. Ulla Teräs said the wooden buildings in Vallila, near her home. And Jari Harju said in summer the Esplanade but in winter, anywhere inside with a good view of snow, trees, or frozen harbor. Which prompted everyone to agree that one’s choice of favorites changes with the seasons. Later I asked the same question of HCM director Tiina Merisalo. Like Sari, she described her commute over the Kulosaari bridge—this time by train and not bicycle—and how much it revealed about the development of the city. She also talked about east Helsinki, where she has raised her family—the neighborhood, the bike paths, and the old manor house. To her this is the Helsinki of real life, the part the tourists will never see.
I came to Helsinki to explore city history and city identity—what makes Helsinki, Helsinki, and how the city’s history shapes its sense of place. Four months later, one of the things I have learned is that there is no monolithic concept of Helsinki; for each person the city is a series of individual places, moments, and memories that together form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Certain images may rise to the top in the mind’s eye—a particular building or street, the water, the parks—but cities are nonetheless comprised of cumulative experiences, some collective and some that are all your own. The longer you live in a place, the more experiences accumulate—locals know their city better than short-timers. And I do believe that those who learn the history of their city understand it better than those who only live in the present.
I leave Helsinki tomorrow, bound for further adventures in other cities, all of which will be interesting and amazing but none of which will be Helsinki. The eve of my departure begs the question: what are my Helsinki places? The challenge of my Fulbright project has been to accumulate a sense of the city at a faster than normal pace, to pack several years worth of place experiences into four months. I can’t claim to know Helsinki like Tove, Sari, Ulla, Jari, and Tiina, but here are my top three:
1. The view of the Tuomiokirkko, the national cathedral, from my 7th-story apartment—in snow and fog, lit with floodlights in the winter and glinting in the sun through the midsummer night. From the ground, in Senate Square, the cathedral is one of the most photographed landmarks in Helsinki, but I have a different view:
Through the floor-to-ceiling picture window in my living room, this view has been a constant since I arrived here, so much so that I tell time from the cathedral’s clock. In fact, it has become my cathedral. I can’t imagine Helsinki without it.
2. Kallio neighborhood, as a whole. I live just over the Pitkäsilta Bridge from Kallio, and I have spent a lot of time there. My favorite restaurant in all of Helsinki is a little Thai place called Lemon Grass, just a block down the hill from the Kallio church. There’s also Hakaniemi market, the Worker’s Housing Museum, karaoke at Paja, the outdoor deck at Siltanen, Karhu Park, and the ethnic groceries along Hämeentie. Kallio holds a special place in the cultural landscape of Helsinki. It’s a little grittier—ever so slightly rough around the edges. In such a safe, clean, middle-class city, I like the texture it provides.
3. Helsinki’s art nouveau architecture. It’s concentrated here in a way that you just don’t find in American cities. And it’s a special brand of Finnish art nouveau too. It makes even the schlep to do my laundry interesting:
I am not finished with Helsinki. If anything, I hope that my relationship with this city is just beginning; I would like to live here again someday. But for now I am bound for other places. We leave for London tomorrow on an evening flight, followed by Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin. I will continue to use this blog to consider Helsinki, but I will also write about these other cities, and their city museums.