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“If you drive your car to wherever you go, you don’t engage with your neighborhood,” says Eirik Glambek Bøe, one half of the indie folk-pop duo Kings of Convenience. “But if you walk and ride your bike, you see people’s faces. And the second time you see them, you say hi.” A lifelong Bergener with a background in architectural psychology, the singer-songwriter knows a thing or two about how profoundly our environment can influence the way we live and interact with those around us. And in a city as small as Bergen, Norway, this well-balanced sense of physical and social community couldn’t be more apparent.

Known simply as Sentrum or “the center,” Bergen’s tiny central area has geographical boundaries that are defined by striking scenery. The North Sea, the Seven Mountains and dozens of islands stretch out on all sides with everything caught in the middle forming the heart of the city. Sentrum is actually comprised of many smaller neighborhoods—such as industrial Møhlenpris, picturesque Nordnes and lively up-and-coming Skostredet—but in a borough so small that it can be crossed on foot in just 15 minutes, there’s a unifying sense of community that’s indifferent to formal neighborhood boundaries. Stretching just over ten square miles, these mini municipalities make up 18 percent of Bergen and contain 40,600 of the city’s 270,000 inhabitants. With its crooked cobblestone streets, traditional wooden houses and striking lack of tall buildings, Sentrum can give the initial impression of a charming and sleepy coastal village—but it’s precisely the smallness that encourages its inhabitants to turn to each other for collaboration.

Strangers in this city simply can’t stay strangers for long. All the photographers, florists, chefs and shopkeepers are bound to be connected in some way, and there’s quite a bit of crossover between the many creative communities. A number of stores pair up with other brands for economic reasons, sharing spaces and encouraging interaction between their different patrons. For example, the contemporary art museum Bergen Kunsthall is home to Ink, a bookshop specializing in poetry, art theory and fiction. It also shares a building with Landmark, a popular café, nightclub and event space that hosts everything from drawing clubs to record release parties. Colonialen is another well-loved café with a few different locations around the city, but its space inside the literary arts center Litteraturhuset is a local favorite: Guests can enjoy a plate of smoked salmon on toast and then get lost in the adjoining bookshop or wander upstairs to listen to a writers’ seminar.

Other shops combine multiple creative pursuits into one business or simply find ways to extend their presence outside of their immediate fields: Jan Richter Lorentzen, founder of the excellent multiroaster coffee shops Kaffemisjonen and Blom, is one such proactive contributor to the neighborhood. He spearheads the city’s tiny specialty coffee scene by setting up pop-up coffee bars at music festivals, hosting public cuppings and servicing espresso machines for cafés around town.

"Strangers in this city simply can’t stay strangers for long."

This collaborative nature is also particularly evident in Sentrum’s various fashion businesses. “The atmosphere here is friendly and uncompetitive, so it feels very natural to join forces,” says Vegard Moberg Nilsen, owner of the modern clothing retailer Pepper. Featuring a well-edited selection of international designers, Pepper is largely credited with sparking the city’s interest in street fashion. He frequently partners with those around him in small but meaningful ways, whether by hiring local graphic design students to create content for his shop or helping promote new musical talent by inviting bands to perform at store events. Lot 333 is a similar contemporary clothing shop with a focus on European brands, and its neighbors at T-Michael offer expert bespoke tailoring services as well as run the rainwear company Norwegian Rain. High-tech and functional without compromising style, these raincoats are seen all over the neighborhood, sheltering its inhabitants from the 212 days of rain they see each year.

And then there’s the city’s diverse and internationally renowned music scene. “In a big city, you meet people who share your interests,” Eirik says. “In a smaller place, you meet all kinds of people with different interests.” Whether they’re more inclined toward dreamy indie-pop, progressive electronica or infamous Norwegian metal, the musicians in Bergen share everything from rehearsal spaces to band members. “We suddenly realized we needed drums in the studio last week,” he says. “Within an hour we found a professional drummer who played some beats for us while he was on lunch break from his orchestra.” Many people work in close proximity to each other in spaces such as Bergen Kjøtt, a four-story factory building that houses both an event space and studios for more than 300 artists and musicians. Behind the doors of its industrial facade, creativity and collaboration abound: “When so many people are gathered under one roof, grand ideas turn into grand opportunities,” says founder Annine Birkeland. “It’s common for peopleto work together here, partly because of the walls—they’re not quite soundproof, so things do leak out. The musician John Olav Nilsen often says that hearing others play can either spark a creative partnership or make it clear to you what kind of music you definitely don’t want to make!”

Regardless of taste, most Bergeners participate in the music scene in some way, especially students. “A lot of people move here at a young age to study, start a band and then continue to stay,” says Henrik Svanevik, owner of the indie book and record shop Robotbutikken. “This makes for a lot of bands, and a lot of bartenders.” Making up an entire tenth of Sentrum’s population, students are significant contributors to the youthful energy and enthusiasm felt around town. The faculty buildings of the University of Bergen are spread out all over the city center, so Sentrum itself functions as the university campus.

There’s a general acceptance among local small-business owners that in order to grow in such a small borough, everyone must share knowledge, including in Sentrum’s culinary sphere. “Luckily, that’s also the fun way of working,” says Christopher Haatuft, head chef and co-owner of a restaurant called Lysverket. Founded by a mixologist, a musician and two acclaimed chefs, this modern Nordic restaurant, craft cocktail bar and nightclub is just the kind of joint project that thrives here. It’s known for excellent drinks and inventive fjord-to- table fare, much of which is prepared with freshly foraged ingredients.

Christopher explains that every chef at every restaurant in town has worked together at some point, so they are all friends. Rivalry simply doesn’t exist. If he’s in need of business advice regarding financial matters, he can call up his closest competitor knowing they’ll open up. If he comes across an exceptional new supplier of produce, he’ll be the first to share the discovery with other restaurants. “The end goal is to encourage innovation and resourcefulness—something that will benefit not just the restaurant, but also the farmer, the farmer’s neighbor and our friends at the restaurant next door,” he says. “As a city, Bergen is lucky to know that everyone wants everyone else to succeed.”

Because large-scale farming isn’t easy in a country as hilly and mountainous as Norway, many types of produce are hard to come by. Rather than viewing the agricultural limitations of their landscape as a hindrance to their work, Lysverket considers it a chance to embrace the commodities unique to their region and present them in a fresh, elevated light. In Christopher’s words, “Why serve foie gras or Bresse chicken when there’s mackerel and reindeer right outside our door?”

But Bergeners don’t completely romanticize the idea of a small town with a friendly community being able to be totally self-sufficient. The very thing that allows them to be so close-knit and neighborly is also precisely what drives them to look across the North Sea for a breath of fresh air: Their tiny archipelago may restrict urban sprawl within Norway, but their ports also welcome all kinds of international influences right into their hearts.

Bergen has a long history of turning to the rest of Europe rather than inward to their own country for inspiration. With its seagulls, sailboats and colorful wooden houses, Bryggen has served as an important international trading wharf for many centuries. The influence of this period is still evident in the mentality of many Bergeners: They’re likely to think and work on a transnational and global scale, and the city has always felt continental and independent of Oslo.

“Globalization has made the world a level playing field for creatives,” says Eric Amaral Rohter, associate creative director of the communications agency A New Type of Interference (ANTI). Working with clients from all over the world, the company has received many first-place awards for its design, advertising and public relations projects. “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we think small. Even though we’re here, we think of ourselves as an international agency,” he says. “Geography is no longer a limiting factor for growth in the creative world, but it does still have a strong influence on creativity and inspiration. By being surrounded by mountains and water, we’ve developed a creative resilience.”

Whether it’s the alluring spell of the water and mountains or the unrelenting rain that keeps everyone together inside their studios, shops and kitchens for two-thirds of the year, there is something distinct and energizing in the salty coastal air of Bergen’s city center. “We live in a beautiful city that balances nature and human presence, and perhaps that speaks to our work ethic,” Eric says. “A great advantage of being here is that a lot of the clutter is taken away. It’s easier to see things and have a vision, and there’s space to breathe.”

Special thanks to Ingrid Rundberg, Mikal Tellé, Trude Vaaga, Rikke Helgesen, Frode Boris Bakken and Maren Mosaker

“A great advantage of being here is that a lot of the clutter is taken away. It’s easier to see things.”

“A great advantage of being here is that a lot of the clutter is taken away. It’s easier to see things.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Fifteen

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