At a moment when divisive and xenophobic rhetoric about immigrants is on the rise, “place histories” can illuminate migrants’ critical place-making practices and contextualize their complex relationships with their new homes as well as the ones they left behind. In The Construction of Equality: Syriac Immigration and the Swedish City, Jennifer Mack presents a social, spatial, and urban history of Södertälje, a city on the periphery of Stockholm, over the past fifty years. Drawing on a range of methodologies, Mack guides the reader through empirically rich case studies while also demonstrating how ethnographic research can inform historical analysis and contribute to the telling of vital architectural and urban stories.
In large part, this book explores how Syriac spatial and building practices have disrupted Swedish architectural and planning philosophies based on the notion that formal homogeneity and uniformity promote social and economic equality. Mack also examines the assumption—made by many urban planners, politicians, and citizens—that segregated immigrant neighborhoods in Sweden are a social problem. In response to this prevalent narrative, she explores the spatial richness of so-called segregated neighborhoods as well as the stories of individual Syriac migrants, who are often perceived as being part of a monolithic immigrant bloc. These histories illustrate how those on the margins produce “urban design from below” through repeated tactical and material interventions into local planning processes and uses of public and private spaces (17). According to Mack, “rather than urban anthropology,” hers is “an anthropology of the urban,” one that creates a road map for studying a shifting material world so as to better understand migrants’ social and architectural histories (11).
Sweden's unique political history makes it a particularly interesting place in which to study migrant-initiated urban change. In twentieth-century Sweden, where spatial solutions to social problems were the norm, planners and architects exerted great influence over social policy. As planning processes were increasingly centralized and linked to governance, the idea of a classless society, or at least a society where class distinctions were not readily visible, drove design decisions. In 1965, the government launched the Million Program, the goal of which was to realize one million housing units for a population of eight million persons by 1974; the program was initiated as part of Sweden's efforts to transform from a struggling Nordic country to a modern welfare state. The resulting, highly standardized mid- and high-rise towers were meant to foster social equity and cement best practices of citizenship. Ideologies of social equity dovetailed with Sweden's humanitarian stance toward the world's refugees.
Syriac Orthodox Christians fleeing religious persecution arrived in Sweden on what became known as the “First Plane” in 1967; by the mid-1970s, a steady stream of Syriac immigrants were entering Sweden from places like Iraq and Turkey. Unlike many refugees, the Syriacs claimed no single nation-state as their homeland or presumed place of future return. Unlike migrants who travel between home and host nations, the Syriacs had left homes to which they could not return. Upon arrival in Sweden, they were dispersed throughout the country as part of a policy intended to ensure their assimilation. They reconvened quickly, however, many of them in Million Program towers in Södertälje, a city whose current population is approximately 26 percent Syriac. For Syriac refugees, who came from a range of places, Södertälje became their global capital. Mack's book tells the story of how and why that happened.
At first, Syriacs’ material intervention into Swedish urbanism, which Mack connects to the modernist Million Program housing initiative, was limited to modest renovations and the occupation of existing buildings. In the 1970s, industry and the local economy in Södertälje declined, resulting in the departure of many Finnish and Norwegian laborers. This created vacancies in Million Program homes that were filled by incoming Syriacs. Extended Syriac families often secured units near one another, and many began using shared interior stairwells as social spaces. These practices, along with the Syriacs’ use of public lawns for family picnics, alarmed local Swedes. Syriacs also formed social associations that gathered in public community centers and held religious services in Swedish Lutheran churches. As Syriac visibility increased, so did vocal anti-immigrant sentiment and action. Raggare—anti-immigrant youth gangs—clashed with Syriac youth, exposing Södertälje's hardening spatial and social divisions. In order to continue holding events and providing services, Syriacs began buying and renovating existing buildings.
It was not until 1983 that Syriacs constructed their first large-scale, purpose-built church in Södertälje. While they could use Swedish churches, their liturgical needs and social practices were not readily adaptable to these, nor were existing structures able to accommodate the hundreds of Syriac congregants who wanted to attend services. The first Syriac-commissioned church, St. Afrem's, designed by a Swedish architect, was given a discreet exterior that concealed a decorative interior—primarily the product of donated Syriac labor and craftsmanship.
After some fifty years of settlement in Sweden, Syriacs began to enact neighborhood-scale changes in Södertälje, erecting new houses in the Lina district, which came to be nicknamed Hollywood. Unlike the communal sites Syriacs had created, such as churches and soccer fields, the homes they built in Lina were intended to display “evidence of their hard-won class journey over five decades” (173). Their stucco-clad, Mediterranean-style houses, with ornamentation and imported materials (e.g., limestone from Turkey), stood in sharp contrast to the standard wooden, gable-roofed cottages characteristic of most other domestic architecture in Sweden.
Mack ends her account of the Syriacs’ trajectory (from the occupation of existing high-rises to the construction of entirely new ethnic enclaves) with a discussion of the Swedish Standard—a building code developed by the Swedish Standards Institute that embodies an almost cultlike dedication to standardized building practices. As Syriac architects and designers began to receive commissions to build for their own community, and as Syriac families aspired to redo their homes’ interiors, they developed inventive ways to break from the Swedish model while still abiding by the rules. For example, the standard two-story maximum building height regulation fails to articulate a specific ceiling height; as a result, many Syriac homes have very high ceilings, something that Swedish planners find surprising and frustrating. Mack argues, however, that a “Syriac Standard” has also developed, in which the cultural and social mores of the Syriac community put “limits on material forms of expression within the group” (234).
Thus far, I have presented the book's narrative as one aligning with the idea of a Syriac “urban design from below,” but Mack complicates and deepens our understanding of the risks and results of the Syriacs’ interventions with ethnographic evidence, integrating stories of material change with explanations of the spatial practices and politics that enliven it. For example, her observation of and participation in a Syriac wedding allows her to describe how such an event became part of a “ritual infrastructure,” or a set of spatial practices that, “over time and with repetition,” has shaped Syriac urban life (136). Brides-to-be and their entourages perform highly choreographed rituals that engage the city's barbershops, beauty salons, banquet halls, and streets, even as Syriacs enact and cement ideas about chastity, marriage, patriarchy, and intrafamilial hierarchy in urban space.
Using sources including online forums, interviews with professionals, newspapers, historic ordinances and close ethnographic observation, Mack illustrates the drama that material changes have inspired. For example, she outlines how Swedish planning ordinances sought to create a tightly regulated and homogeneous built environment. Planners and politicians working within these norms have claimed that Lina “is not Sweden” (219). From their point of view, standards produce “neighborhood harmony.” From the Syriac point of view, however, these standards are a “disciplinary imposition on creative freedom” (176). If Lina “is not Sweden,” then what is it?
This ambitious book tackles the rich complexity of Swedish urban planning and Syriac spatial practices, showing the impacts they have had on each other and tracing diasporic, minority-led, urban change. Were a follow-up volume to be written, some exploration of Swedes’ reactions to Syriac transformations and uses of the built environment (beyond those opinions expressed in online forums and newspapers, or those of planners or politicians) would be in order. Beyond anti-immigrant sentiment or critiques of Syriacs’ “maximalist” ways, are some of the Swedes who make up the other 74 percent of Södertälje's population rethinking their own practices and traditions in light of the Syriac approach to life? How does Syriac “urban design from below” compare with, for example, Arijit Sen's ethnographic–architectural–historic analysis of Indians and Pakistanis in Chicago?1
As a reader, I am particularly curious about Syriac definitions of equality. Mack shows how the idea that Sweden is building a just and economically equitable society has become “reified,” and she notes that there are “rifts between the idealized models that majority Swedish architects and planners often still pursue and the new social realities that such professionals must increasingly contend with and accept” (212). Syriacs, thus, design their own “spaces and definitions of equality” (262). Throughout their fifty-some years of settlement in one of the world's most distinctive sociospatial environments, how have Syriacs’ ideas of equality changed, and what is their conception of spatial equality? How do the views of equality among Syriacs currently living in Sweden differ from those of their counterparts thirty or forty years ago?
Mack brings Södertälje to life, showing it as the Syriac capital of the world. Difference is tolerated there so long as it remains marginal. However, increased visibility often leads to public and professional antagonism. The Construction of Equality lays the groundwork not only for a rethinking of planning practices that are no longer linked to social realities but also for a new focus on migrant populations’ own ideas of how, and for whom, the built environment should function. For those interested in how diasporic spaces are made, especially from the perspective of immigrants, Mack's book is a must-read.