July 25, 2019
It feels like a place perched at the edge of the earth. Here snow-capped mountains rise right from the water’s edge and granitic rock lines the port. Small fishing boats come and go as long as there is light–and at this time of year, there is always light–while the load of ship-sized trawlers is craned into the humming fish plant. From Mo’s cockpit, I am overwhelmed by the smells of fish and of the tar used to keep the antique fleet afloat, all of which are suggestive to me of a frontier town.
Once beyond the harbor, however, Nuuk’s most striking feature is very urban, a struggle with rapid population growth.
In 2014, the year of my first visit, the walk into town passed by open land, flats of rock-strewn with wildflowers and a cemetery whose view was the mountains. Now the green grass and white crosses remain, but all else is covered in multi-story apartments.
“We have one crisis in Nuuk, and it’s a housing crisis,” says John, whose office is across from that of the harbormaster and who is always at his desk when the harbormaster is not. “We simply can’t build fast enough.”
At a stated population of 17,000, Nuuk is Greenland’s largest city by far. The “city” of Sisimiut, 225 miles north by water, is second in line at a mere 5,000, compared to which the remaining towns and hamlets contain but a handful of souls.
But to the casual observer, Nuuk appears on the verge of a wholesale doubling. Rows of concrete barracks in the lowlands are being augmented by modern apartment complexes overlooking old town and the bay. Often this new construction retains those grim architectural elements suggestive of public housing and contrasts sharply with the bright, clapboard buildings erected by the founders.
“Our rapid growth is mostly in the housing sector,” says John. Yes, there is more contracting work now; there will be more domestic services required, and Nuuk is the seat of government for Greenland, but there is no boom in fishing or mining, and tourism is hampered by a small airport and a pier not large enough for today’s super-cruise ships.
But even without jobs, the standard of living here is higher. “We have a shopping mall; a theater; two large grocery stores. We have a university,” John continues, “the younger generation comes here for an education and does not wish to return home. They all have cell phones. They grew up with the internet. They see how the rest of the world lives, and Nuuk is as close to the rest of the world as they can get.”