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No-go zone? Here's how one of Sweden's roughest areas edged out its drug gangs

Emma Löfgren
Emma Löfgren - [email protected]
No-go zone? Here's how one of Sweden's roughest areas edged out its drug gangs
Police after a shooting in Seved in June 2015. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

One of Malmö's most infamous districts may be removed from a high-profile police list of 'especially vulnerable areas' in a couple of years, thanks to community efforts to boost the area.


The lilacs are in bloom. The air is soft and warm on one of Malmö's first summer days after a long winter, and in the square in the Seved area a group of people, with children, are chatting quietly. If you weren't familiar with these streets' reputation as one of Malmö's worst trouble areas, grabbing headlines over shootings, car burnings and open drug trade for years, you would almost find it hard to believe.

“This is the famous Rasmusgatan street and these blocks are what is known as Seved, but Seved is really just this little neighbourhood, we're talking six streets,” says Hjalmar Falck, a council development officer who's worked in the area for years and is managing a scheme to boost the district, pointing it out on a map.

SWEDEN IN FOCUS: An in-depth look at what makes this place tick

These six streets consist of the two parallel streets Rasmusgatan and Jespersgatan, joined together by a square and four side streets. It is part of the larger Sofielund area, a mixed area of apartment blocks and quaint, detached houses with gardens on flagstone streets. When The Local visits, everything is calm, quite pretty, and based on looks alone it could be any area of any city. But that has not always been the case.

Falck is used to talking about Seved to Swedish and international media, who have been taking an increased interest in one of Sweden's most infamous “no-go zones”. The term caught on after it was used by a columnist to label 53 areas described as “vulnerable” in an official police report, but was rejected by police themselves. But if any part of Sweden ever did come close to claiming the title, it was Seved. The postal company has not delivered parcels directly to homes here since 2014, residents have spoken of open drug trade, and many others in Malmö would rather walk around than take a shortcut through the area.

The number of vulnerable areas has been updated after this article was first published. Read more here.

Hjalmar Falck points out the Seved district in the Sofielund area of Malmö. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

From a purely aesthetic perspective, it's an attractive and conveniently located area near central Malmö. But it is also among 15 districts listed by police as "especially vulnerable" in the above report. These are socio-economically vulnerable areas where crime and poverty rates are generally high, where police regularly have to adapt their methods and equipment to the volatile situation, and where residents often do not report crimes to the police, either out of fear of retaliation or because they think it will not lead to anything.

In Seved some of the most high-profile problems in the past few years have been drug trafficking and groups of young men loitering in the street, harassing passers-by and threatening property owners. “The gangs have taken over Seved,” Swedish media headlines have shouted for years, as late as last summer.

READ ALSO: How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?

Sevedsplan, the main square in Seved. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

The Local speaks to Jonatan Örstrand, a police officer working in the area, as well as in other parts of central Malmö, on the phone. His particular role specifically involves liaising with Malmö City Council.

“There are certain requirements for an area to be classified as 'especially vulnerable', and Seved meets these," he explains. "We're talking about open drug trade, a certain parallel society, other structures than the usual social structures… and it's been like that for some time in Seved, with a local criminal network running the show, trading drugs in the open, threatening residents and making their own rules."

But, he says, the situation is slowly improving. Falck agrees: "There was a period when it was rather unpleasant. You could not really walk around there with cameras and other things or you would get threatened and harassed – and you could get exposed to some pretty tough verbal attacks. The postal company, security guards and property contractors did not dare to go there, and I didn't encourage them."

“But today, since about a year ago, it is like day and night.”

Justice minister Morgan Johansson speaking to Hjalmar Falck on a visit to Malmö. Photo: Emil Langvad/TT

Sweden is trying to crack down on what is often referred to as gang violence, but which experts say is better described as more fluid criminal networks. Justice minister Morgan Johansson spoke warmly about the police and civil society's work in Seved and Sofielund on a visit to Malmö in March. The government's new crime prevention scheme emphasizes the need for police and other authorities to work together. 

READ ALSO: Sweden plans to crack down on gang crime

The reasoning is that police measures are not enough to stop crime. The whole of society needs to step up. One example of how such efforts may have contributed to some of the changes in Seved is Hjalmar Falck's 'Fastighetsägare Sofielund' organization (Property Owners Sofielund). The scheme was launched in 2014 with building owners in Malmö and the city council as the driving forces, and with Falck as a coordinator.

He had already worked in the area for some time and had already singled out the housing situation as a major factor. Rental housing is heavily regulated in Sweden, in theory, but Seved had struggled for decades with an unmanageably large number of landlords renting out apartments without carrying out proper building maintenance. The area still has a turnaround of tenants of more than 25 percent a year.

“I had begun looking into the property situation, because I understood some of it was pretty nasty, and I found a handful of eight, ten really dodgy landlords. You had everything: cockroaches, poor wiring, people sitting in basements without electricity and all of these classic things that characterize dodgy landlords."

The majority of them have since been forced to leave ("there are still a few left") and facades of previously rusty balconies and broken window ledges have been replaced by modern, bright street art.

Street art in Seved. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Those property owners that remain have been asked to join Fastighetsägare Sofielund and sign a voluntary pledge to work together to invest in their housing and in the area. The association is based on the so-called BID model, Business Improvement District, a model developed in the US and spread across the world.

“Seved is so damn stigmatized, we have to get away from that label,” says Falck.

“We want to increase the attractiveness of this area to create a safe and clean and nice area,” he adds, arguing that it will convince more businesses to set up shop in Sofielund, convince more residents to stick around in the area and not move out, which will in turn create stability and a better neighbourhood.

Norra Grängesbergsgatan, a few blocks from Seved, is another Sofielund street that has been on authorities' radar for years with a reputation as a hub for unlicensed clubs often funding criminal activity.

It is next in the pipeline for a potential revamp, says Falck.

“This entire area could become a new destination in Malmö. We want to turn it into a business area. Could we get restaurants that can attract people with micro breweries, culture and art… who knows?”

But if the area improves and the market value of the homes goes up, will all residents even be able to stay? The gentrification process is one of the main arguments used by critics of the Business Improvement District model.

“We want to do it with a great deal of sensitivity,” Falck is keen to stress. 

“We have to be very careful not to push people out of the area but keep all those activities and associations that create value for the area. That is very important to us, so we are mapping the whole area to see what Sofielund has which we will help develop and what Sofielund needs.”

Not everyone agrees that the objective to involve the entire community and not push people out is being met. Kontrapunkt, a social and cultural centre right next to Norra Grängesbergsgatan and a well-known voice at grassroots level in Malmö, criticized a street festival organized by Fastighetsägare Sofielund and a number of other local players in September for trying to attract outsiders to the street rather than building on those already there.

Johanna Nilsson at Kontrapunkt's premises, which are now closed. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Kontrapunkt was invited to take part in the festival, but declined, initially because the group and its volunteer workers were still recovering after having provided emergency housing for 17,000 asylum seekers during four months at the peak of the 2015 refugee crisis, spokesperson Johanna Nilsson tells The Local.

“We felt we didn't have time, we needed the rest. Then there was more pressure from the property owners that we should take part, so we started looking into it. But when we spoke to our neighbours they didn't know anything about it, but all important cultural players were involved. We felt that more efforts were being put into attracting people to the area rather than talking to those already here. We said it's a process which could lead to those who are here being pushed out,” she says.

Ironically, Kontrapunkt itself could now be forced to leave.

The organization closed its doors last month after a row with the property owner, a member of Fastighetsägare Sofielund, about a missing building permit, among other things. The landlord has declined to speak about the conflict to media; Kontrapunkt says it started after they criticized the festival.

"He took it very personally. He took our criticism of the festival as criticism of him, and as a consequence he has since then stated that if we don't promise to not speak about the festival again, he will make sure we have to leave," says Nilsson.

Falck is not able to get involved in the conflict, but hopes it will get resolved eventually.

“We need these critical voices, I think they are extremely important. I'd rather they be part of the process and examine us to highlight things they think are wrong, because that makes us stay alert. Critical voices are very important, there are many critical voices. I fully respect that, we have had many projects here that have started and ended,” says Falck.

“But when people ask about gentrification and raised rents, I usually answer that we started by getting rid of those who charged extortionary rents and exploited people and so on, and we definitely don't want to end up in the same situation again,” he adds.

“Because if people want to stay here, if businesses want to stay in the area, the area will become more stable, everyone takes responsibility and that's the win-win situation.”

Closed indefinitely, says a notice on Kontrapunkt's front door. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

At a sports field near Seved, Mohamed Abdulle and Ahmed Warsame, the chairman and football manager of the local club Seveds FK, are preparing for Tuesday training. They both grew up here and admit the area has challenges, but argue that its image in the media is on the whole somewhat unfair and imbalanced.

“It feels like everyone has an opinion but not the insight. Does the area have its problems? Yes. But most cities have parts that get less positive attention, don't they?” says Warsame.

“I remember that maybe ten years ago there used to be a lot of young people hanging out on the streets of Seved. And I can understand then why people say 'don't go there' because there are a lot of youth gangs, but much of that has disappeared,” adds Abdulle.

“There are a lot of people on low incomes with immigrant backgrounds you know, but most young people, the children of parents who have come here, are studying and have jobs. But there's also those who went wrong and ended up outside of society, and then they get all the headlines because no one goes to interview an average young person studying at university. So it's a little bit of seeing what you want to see.”

They have also worked hard to turn the area around. They co-founded Seveds FK in 2014 in an effort to create activities for local youngsters – and to play football. In three years they have advanced to Division 6 in the tables, and their matches have become a staple in the local calendar.

The club is sponsored by Fastighetsägare Sofielund, and it also organizes late evening walks through Seved to help residents feel safe and reclaim the streets from criminal groups. And if nothing else, they have managed to give neighbours in the area something to rally around and feel proud about.

“One nice thing is that the young guys in the area but also older people, even women, often come to the matches to cheer us on. I think it's nice that it's got two different groups cheering for something together. I think that's a really great aspect,” says Warsame.

Ahmed Warsame and Mohamed Abdulle. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

When neighbours come together like this it helps create what criminologists call collective efficacy, the ability of a community to together control the bad behaviour of individuals by almost subconsciously agreeing on a common set of norms and values. Malmö University researchers Anna-Karin Ivert and Karl Kronkvist have studied the BID process in Sofielund since it started, and have noted an improvement.

“I think a big problem may be that those who have handled the drug trade have had such a major influence and that affects those who live there. Even if they are not targeted, it creates a certain feeling of being unsafe, and it's not much fun to do the laundry in a communal laundry room that is also being used for drug trafficking,” Ivert tells The Local.

"It looks like there's a positive trend. We have to hope that it is not just temporary, but there are indications that residents are feeling somewhat safer and that the problem level has gone down. When we look at crime there are some crimes that have gone down, others which have gone up, for example drugs. But that is not particularly strange and could actually be something positive, because at the same time the police have targeted drug trafficking, which explains why it has increased in the statistics."

Falck adds: "I believe that if the police keep pushing and trust in police and the council increases, then perhaps this collective efficacy also increases, and I think that could put enormous pressure on the criminal operations."

Anna-Karin Ivert. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Ivert and Kronkvist's report does not confirm to what extent Fastighetsägare Sofielund's efforts have contributed to improving the situation and how much is thanks to the police crackdown, which among other things saw surveillance cameras installed two years ago. But Örstrand speaks highly of the project.

“I see big benefits in that it is clean and tidy and that the locks are working, and thanks to this cooperation we're discussing these things with the property owners,” says the police officer.

If Seved holds this course, Örstrand believes it may very well be removed from the police authority's list of 'especially vulnerable' areas in just a couple of years.

"The criminal network is still there, but they are becoming fewer and fewer and we are very happy that we're not seeing any new recruitment. There are no younger members connected to this network, so they are getting older and older and fewer and fewer," he says.

"But it all depends on the course of the future. If we continue, as today, with the criminal network getting smaller and smaller and not growing, then it's in the foreseeable future, in a couple of years. But if it starts to build up again from the bottom then we're talking many years. At the same time the problem in Seved is not just the criminal network there, but also widespread exclusion and other crime."

"It was a lot worse six, seven years ago. It was completely different then. In those days there could be 50 people out in the street when you drove into the area who were hostile to the police. And today there is maybe 10-20 of them. So it is manageable in a completely different way to what it was before."

The Rasmusgatan street in Seved. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

This does not mean that the area is problem-free, not by any standards. The postal company confirms to The Local that its policy not to deliver parcels to individual addresses at Seved remains in place, although there has been talk of easing it. In the past year there have been several instances of car burnings, and the drug trade moved from the street inside the buildings to avoid surveillance cameras. In November a man in his 30s was shot dead, one of 11 fatal shootings in Malmö last year (there were three in 2015).

While some may argue it seems far-fetched to claim that street festivals and cleanliness help prevent crime, Ivert explains that there is more to soft power than meets the eye. “To get collective efficacy those who live there have to be able to meet, and if the square is clean and nice and fresh, that you actually want to spend time there with your children, perhaps you meet and discuss things rather than going up to your apartment as quickly as you can. It also sends an important signal that the city shows that it cares,” she says.

Anders Helm runs Sofielundspatrullen, which is made up of around a dozen workers picking litter from streets in the area to help keep it clean. It is one of the projects thought up by Fastighetsägare Sofielund.

“This project is probably one of the best Malmö has ever done. We're getting so much praise. When we started in this area there was even a lady who came down in her bathrobe and hugged one of the guys. An old man who lived there for 32 years said he had been about to move because it was so dirty 'but then I've seen how you've started cleaning and now it's starting to get nice living here again'.” he tells The Local.

Anders Helm of Sofielundspatrullen. Photo: Emma Löfgren/TT

Falck emphasizes that Fastighetsägare Sofielund is not a temporary project that will end when it runs out of money. It is a “process”, he says, a vision to show that Malmö is not giving up on Seved and Sofielund.

“There's still a little shouty group there of adult men in their 20s and 30s, and when I go there they call me all sorts of names, but from there to what it was like before is a huge difference. Malmö residents can use their streets again, and it was bloody well about time.”

"When German media and some American news site were here they absolutely wanted to see these areas, so I said 'let's go to these no-go zones, Norra Grängesbergsgatan and Rasmusgatan'. They were like 'there's no litter here, there's nothing, not even paper waste on the ground, what is this?'" he laughs.

"Well, I said, those are your 'no-go zones'!"

This article is part of our Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at what makes this country tick. Read more from the series here.


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