Living History in the Old Quarters of Helsinki

Laura Ekholm

Few history books on Helsinki can compete in popularity with a series of books on the old quarters of the city. Being a must-read for over four decades is a solid achievement for any history-related book, but especially so for books that are based on collections of edited and illustrated newspaper articles originally published in the Finnish national daily Helsingin Sanomat.

In 1966 Helsingin Sanomat sent two young journalists, Kaija Hackzell (at that time Ollila) and Kirsi Toppila, to write a series of articles on the historical quarters of Helsinki (HS 2005). The articles were originally published in a section featuring local news.

On the basis of these articles, Ollilla and Toppila edited and illustrated a collection of short stories, some shortened from the original texts, others updated with a new nuance. Helsingin Sanomat published them as a volume in 1977. The first book, “The old quarters of Helsinki”, was a success, appearing in nine editions between 1977 and 2002. Meanwhile the journalists continued collecting material, did more archival work and, most of all, they kept interviewing people who shared the stories of their home blocks. New volumes were published forming eventually a series of books with six volumes. The secret behind this was the commitment that the authors and editors, Kaija Hackzell and Kirsi Toppila, invested in the project. In the process, the journalists collected data on the architectural and oral history of Helsinki for 35 years – an honorable historical account by any standards.

The six books of the series

The first book, Puhvelista Punatulkkuun. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita ( “From buffalo to bullfinch. The old quarters of Helsinki”), covered the histories of 10 districts that belong to the inner city of Helsinki (Kruununhaka, Kluuvi, Kaartinkaupunki, Kamppi, Punavuori, Ullanlinna, Katajanokka, Kaivopuisto, Eira, and Länsisatama). The title of the book comes from an early nineteenth-century nomenclature which gave animal and flower names to each quarter in what now is the city centre. The short accounts were originally published between 1967 and 1970.

Helsinki is a modern city. The oldest districts in the empire style city centre were built in the 1830s and the 1840s. The time span of the books themselves cover the period from the 1860s onwards – starting from the era when Helsinki started to industrialize and to grow rapidly. Here and there short references are made back to the early nineteenth century, but clearly, if one moves on to the following volumes in the series of “old quarters of Helsinki”, “old” in this city seems to refer to a period from the mid-nineteenth century to the interwar years.

The second book, Herrasväen ja työläisten kaupunki (1983, “A City of Gentlefolk and Workers”), moved on to the working-class districts of Kallio and the bourgeois villa area of Eira. This volume was my first familiarization with the series as it was a coffee table book in my grandmother’s apartment. The pages telling about “her” quarter were carefully marked with Helsingin Sanomat articles about the working-class district of Kallio. Viertotietä itään ja länteen (1988, “East and West on the Viertotie road”) covered the expansion of the city into the districts of Sörnäinen, Alppila, and Kallio on the one hand, and to a more middle-class Etu-Töölö on the other. It was edited by Kaija Hackzell alone and based on articles published between 1983 and 1988.

Three more volumes were published in the 1990s. Oihonnankadulta Kumpulantielle (“From Oihonnankatu street to Kumpulantie road”, 1991) covered the districts Hermanni and Vallila. Töölöntullin molemmin puolin (“Both sides of Töölöntulli”, 1997) described the history of Töölö, Meilahti and Laakso. These two were edited by Hackzell and Toppari. The last book in the series, Rakas vanha Munkkiniemi (“Beloved old Munkkiniemi”, 1997) by Hackzell alone.

Popular history guidebooks and a unique database

The books provide a popular history, guiding the reader from one block to another, to the inner yards, gossiping about interesting personalities and showing the different layers of built history. While the facts – dates, names of architects and master builders – are thoroughly researched, the time-layers tend to be confused. Although careful in telling when the blocks were constructed, the short stories are less precise in informing the reader in which decade, or even in which century the anecdotes should be situated. In this sense, reading the works is like joining an illustrated guided city tour where all the best stories are told at once.  Interestingly, the WorldCat library database classifies the works in English as Finnish-language guidebooks on historic buildings, while in Finnish the volumes are classified as local history. What about the history then, in these popular history guidebooks?

The series of books serves as a reference book. As an economic and social historian I have used them as background material for understanding how a certain quarter might have looked a hundred years ago. Yet the books proved to be applicable for much more. I have indexed references to the Jewish past of Helsinki and used them in an analysis on how Jewish history has been narrated in the local history. For my current study I have again browsed them to look for information on home industry in the working-class districts. For a professional historian the books understandably have their shortcomings. As an industrial history of Helsinki, the volumes are far from complete. The books tend to get fuzzy in describing the darker sides of the past. Crime, prostitution and urban poverty spice up the stories but the volumes tend to give a romanticized image of the streets of Helsinki.

At the same time, the books are less an example of scholarly research than a unique dataset of three decades of oral history. The volumes can be taken as an invaluable source of anecdotal evidence that has been collected and written by applying a relatively consistent method. The stories are organized by city quarters and provide the years when buildings were constructed, yet most of all, the books tell about the people who lived and worked in these blocks. Hundreds of interviews were made for the articles. The process of collecting the material provided opportunities for people to become involved in the making of local history and historical identity.  Some might have limited their interest to the house they were living in or the neighbourhood, others contributed to the history of the city as a whole. Some of the contributors were or have become established scholars in history-related subjects. Ultimately, the works include insights into the lives of several generations of Helsinki-dwellers – their stories, their worries and their joys.

The books can also be approached by asking: Who were the people of Helsinki?  Most people in Helsinki moved to the city as young adults. Where did they come from according to these books on the old quarters? Until 1910 Helsinki was a predominantly Swedish-speaking city, after which Finnish became the dominant language. It ought to be mentioned that the original names of the districts in the center of Helsinki were in Swedish, whereas the “old quarters of Helsinki” books systematically use the Finnish names. Sometimes a dialect is mentioned in these volumes, and a few paragraphs specifically refer to linguistic boundaries. But Helsinki was also a multilingual city, the city being mostly influenced by Russian. If one reads carefully, Russian names or references to Russian nationality, ethnic background or Greek Orthodox religion are frequent. There are also glimpses of Estonians, Germans, Jews, Tatars and other minorities here and there. One might argue that this is a false illusion, that it was so exciting and rare to have “foreigners” around that it was specifically noticed. But for me the books seem, on the contrary, quite often unaware of such questions, and in many cases linguistic and religious minorities are not mentioned. When people moved in, whether from the Finnish countryside or abroad, the reference is purely contextual, if it is mentioned at all. Apparently moving in was so common that it was not a topic of special interest in these books.


The first book covered more or less inner Helsinki. The following anthologies practically draw the mental borderline between the core of Helsinki and the parts of the city that are considered suburbs.  What is included in books like these, in which parts of town are thought important enough to have a history of their own, has of course consequences for how these areas are imagined at later stages. Colloquial nicknames become part of the shared wisdom of the city’s past, for example. When the earliest books were written, the suburbs built in the 1960s and the 1970s were new. Now, half a century since the beginning of the project, many such suburbs have been renovated and are referred to as the “old” parts when contrasted with the parts built since then. Some suburban districts are known for city festivals and other events arranged by locals on a volunteer basis for the neighbourhood.

The old quarters of Helsinki volumes came out before such events were a widely known part of urban culture. The books described traditions and festivities people held in the inner yards of their building blocks. In doing so, these little stories may have done their share in encouraging local activism and a passion for one’s own urban neighbourhood. All things considered, these volumes can be regarded as true classics.


A complete list of the books:

Ollila, Kaija & Toppari, Kirsi (1977). Puhvelista Punatulkkuun. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita.  Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki.

Nenonen, Kaija & Toppari, Kirsi (1983). Herrasväen ja työväen kaupunki. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita 2. Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki.

Hackzell, Kaija (1988). Viertotietä itään ja länteen. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita 3. Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki.

Hackzell, Kaija & Toppari, Kirsi (1991). Oihonnankadulta Kumpulantielle. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita 4. Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki.

Hackzell, Kaija & Toppari Kirsi (1997). Töölöntullin molemmin puolin. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita 5. Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki.

Hackzell, Kaija (1998). Rakas vanha Munkkiniemi. Helsingin vanhoja kortteleita 6. Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki.



HS [Helsingin Sanomat] 2005. Siitä on lähes 40 vuotta. Kahden naisen jättiurakka tuotti 439 kirjoitusta ja kuusi kirjaa. Helsingin Sanomat 4.6.2005

Laura Ekholm

PhD, Research Fellow, Department of Political and Economic Studies, Economic and Social History, University of Helsinki.