The birth of a city

On a bright and balmy Sunday in March, 15 people from at least 8 nationalities gathered at the main Cathedral to travel back in time. Their destination: 1800s Århus, a small town on the brink of the industrial revolution and its great future. Their guide: historian Doron Haar.

Today, Aarrhus is Denmark’s second largest city and home to 320,000 people. But at the beginning of the 19th century, Århus was a backwater town, smaller even than Randers. Only 4,000 people lived within its wooden walls. It was dark – only two streetlights lit the entire town – and it was dirty, its streets full of animal and human waste.

 Store Torv was still the city center and the main location of entertainment. It was where public whippings were held and where the famous tightrope walker, The Dutchman, defied death and walked a tightrope to the top of the Cathedral’s spire. One year later, he would die attempting the same feat in Copenhagen. As Haar so aptly put it, “That was the horror of entertainment in the 19th century.”

Lilletorv was in some ways even more important than Store Torv. The mayor’s house stood where Magasin stands now. But the most important building – the “biggest, most beautiful, extravagant house in the city 150 years ago,” according to Haar – was the large, white building across the square, which still stands there today. This was the house of the most affluent merchant in town. It was here that the royal family stayed when they passed through because apart from being the best-appointed house in town it also had the only balcony in all of Aarhus. And the King must be able to wave to his subjects.

Liberalization and industrialization
So this was Århus at the beginning of the 1800s. Yet Århus would end the century with more than 50,000 inhabitants and would go on to become Denmark’s second largest city. What could cause such a change?

First, the guild system was disbanded, enabling anyone and everyone to open a business or factory. This allowed the industrial revolution and free trade to take hold in Denmark. The economy flourished.

 Now that Denmark was liberalized, everyone wanted in on the action. A group of Englishmen came to Denmark to build a railway through the middle of Jylland, but some clever politicians convinced them to go through Århus instead. Similarly, a decision was made at this time to enlarge the harbor outside of the small river so that large ships could dock at the city. Now there were means of fast transportation of people and goods in and out of the city. Businessmen could ship materials here to build their factories, and they could ship their products out once they were built. And enterprising peasants looking for new lives in the big city could come to Århus to work in its gleaming new factories.

A population explosion
And come they did. Between the years 1850 and 1900, Århus’ population grew to five times its original number. The city was now too small to hold everyone, so the original wooden walls were torn down and new neighborhoods were built. Many of the neighborhoods that make up Aarhus C today were constructed in just a few years in the 1800s: Frederiksbjerg, Trøjborg, Øgadekvarteret. But these were not the romantic, picturesque areas that we know today. Rather, they were crowded, dirty, and unhealthy, with many families living in each apartment.

Indeed, perhaps the most romantic spot in Aarhus today, Møllestien, was originally home to the poorest of Århus’ inhabitants and infamous for the prostitutes that lived and worked there. It remained the bad part of town until after WWII when the city began to eradicate the area. They tore down much of the neighborhood, but in the 1960’s and 70’s students moved in and saved the remaining houses.

The romantic place at the beginning of the 1800s was Åboulevarden. People would come here to stroll in the green gardens and take romantic boat rides. But by the end of the 19th century, the river had become polluted and putrid, a dumping ground for factory waste, and already the city was talking about covering it over.

Åboulevarden is where the trip through time ended. Here, past meets present, thanks to the uncovering of the Å that started in 1996. Now, Aarhus’ inhabitants can once again enjoy a romantic stroll next to the Å just as their forefathers did 214 years ago.

Read more about The Festival of the Century here


By Allison McCue