Ezra Fox Explores Christiania the Free – Denmark’s (Sort Of) Lawless Place

by Ezra Fox on December 1, 2010

photo by Bryan Clark/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

In 2006, the people of Freetown Christiania had one of their epic, soul-crushing consensus-democracy meetings. It wasn’t going well. The subject was the future of Christiania itself. Up for debate was a plan by the conservative government that offered a devil’s bargain.

Option 1, accept the Danish government’s plan to normalize Christiania, the self-governed, three-decade-old hippie commune in the middle of Copenhagen, by putting it officially under Danish rule and allowing the government to construct housing for 400 new residents, opening it up for people to move there. Also, the Christianites would see their well-below-market rents raised through the roof. In short, it would be the end of Christiania as they knew it.

Option 2, reject the government’s plan, in which case the government would bulldoze the town and start over, basically doing what it wanted to anyway.

Everyone was scared, Christiania spokesman Thomas Ertmann tells me. Both sides were afraid of what the government would do, so the dialogues weren’t at all productive. These meetings went on for days. The deadline for an answer was fast approaching and there was no side with any clear edge. Amidst the chaos of debate, “a guy called Joker stood up and said, ‘why don’t we just put a guy in a Christiania suit who can play the flute up there and throw money around him?’”

When the people realized that this was the best idea that they had come up with, they organized a press conference, featuring a flutist and a dancer who tossed money. Understandably, the government didn’t know what to do with this response, and it marked a turning point for Christianites in the way they thought about the issue. From then on, instead of waiting for the government to act, Christianites focused on what they wanted, and went to court to demand their rights to the land.

This is Christiania: delightful, ridiculous, frustrating, stubborn, and quite possibly swimming in drugs. I had an impossible task ahead of me trying to make any sense of the place on my half-dozen trips there. Every time I went in, I was essentially asking “what are you?” and in response it played the flute and threw money around itself.

In every important way, the town sets itself apart. To walk in through the main entrance you must first pass through a carved wooden arch that says “Christiania.” The grounds of Christiania were barracks dating back to the 1600s, then abandoned by the military in the 1960s, and taken over by squatting hippies during a housing shortage in 1971. It’s 85 acres of town with parts straight out of Mad Max, Deadwood, and the Haight in ‘68.  There’s an eclectic mix of stores including cafe-galleries, a bathhouse, an organic grocer, and a youthful music venue. It’s also home to around 650 adults, 200 children, and of course, the famous Pusher Street.

As you enter the town, one of the first signs you see says “No Photos.” Press on and you’ll arrive at Pusher Street, home to the most open selling of marijuana and candy-bar sized bricks of hash in all of Denmark. “Pusher” is something of a misnomer, as the drugs basically sell themselves. “Offer-er Street” seems a bit more accurate. The main attractions are the small stalls with bricks of dark hash on display and hooded men on either sides of the counter. Teens sit on steps and smoke joints and cigarettes while a shaggy-haired man sings Dylan on his guitar for spare kroner. Charred 40-gallon oil drums burn wood for heat and light.

In no particular order, your thoughts might be: (1) “I’ve wandered into the cool kids’ bathroom in high school,” (2) “That this is what would happen to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley if someone kept it in a bubble for 39 years,” or (3) “I’ve got to get out before it gets dark.”

I had a hunch that this discomfort you feel in Christiania is a calculated effect. On my fourth trip into the town I actually sat down with some young Christianites and we talked about the feeling of the community.

Johannes has a round, pleasant face and a shaved head, mostly covered by a black hoodie. I join him at a wooden table covered with empty bottles of Hancock Pils beer with special Christiania labels, three dots on the neck, which can also be seen on the town flag, and a symbol that looks like a bug, which can be seen tattooed on Johannes’ forearm. We met in one of the back rooms of Musikloppen (the Music Flea), one of the original converted brick military barracks, now a popular touring stop for international bands doing the European circuit. The back room has the flophouse feel of a college dorm, with one bearded kid passed out on the cot for the duration of the interview, a couple with haircuts that would keep them out of the business world watching something on a netbook, and a few other guys hanging out on a ratty couch.

Johannes first went to Christiania as a teen when he started smoking hash, and eventually worked his way into the community, moving in and becoming a contributing member of the society. But it’s hard to get into Christiania. And that’s kind of the point.

“There are two ways to move here. You can either work yourself in or fuck yourself in.” Johannes was a barman and shift manager at Musikloppen before getting to move in. Risenga, another Christianite, worked for the town’s economics group for five years before getting to move in. Working yourself in, Johannes tells me, “takes half your life.” The other way, presumably, doesn’t.

“There’s a third way also,” he adds, but is hesitant to speak about it, and I couldn’t confirm it with anyone else. You’re not supposed to buy or sell housing in Christiania since no one owns the buildings and, technically, rent is also free, although a “use right” is paid to the municipality. It comes to about 1900 kroner a month, or $350. He mentions that the third way involves the hash pushers getting in by making “offers they can’t refuse” to Christianites who are moving out.

According to Johannes, the rules of Christiania say that it’s fine to sell hash and marijuana, but the owner of the stall selling the drugs has to live in the town. Johannes tells me about “some Africans who tried selling coke and heroin but got beat up” by the hash pushers. Hash pushers can live outside of the town, but have to work for a Christianite. So if pushers could move in, they could set up a new stall and work for themselves.

If you go back through the history of Christiania, you’ll find a few common threads: drugs, violence, outsiders, and land. An area near the center of Copenhagen where you can sell drugs is worth a lot and at one time or another, gangs like the Hell’s Angels, the Bullshits, and the Banditos have clashed with each other, with locals, or with the police over selling drugs in Christiania.

On the other hand, the prospect of free land near the center of Copenhagen and a chance to strike a blow to the drug trade was too great of an incentive for some Danish administrations to stay away from. So for the last 10 years, there’s been a halt on all construction in Christiania while a case slowly works its way through the court system that could allow the government to tear it down, if judgement goes against the Christianites.

But, as is the case in many small-scale fights of disproportionate power, the outsiders have underestimated the home field advantage. Johannes and his friends tell me that there’s no end to the stubbornness for the locals. Christiania is not a business proposition to them, or a political gain. It’s personal. And it’s theirs. “People are willing to die,” says Johannes.

But in another conversation, a friend gave me some reason to doubt the idealism of the Christianites. Rune, a Dane from Frederiksberg, perhaps the wealthy equivalent of Christiania, as it’s not technically part of Copenhagen even though it’s surrounded by the city, believed that the old school Christianites are complacent.

You have these old hippies, he tells me, and over the years they collect nice things. They have their houses and they just want things to stay the same. The original ideal of Christiania was freedom, but the old hippies are nepotistic and only let their kids move into Christiania. (Johannes didn’t mention it, but if it’s true, maybe this is the fourth way.)

I’m not sure I’m ready to degrade their original activism to the level of “get off my lawn, you kids,” but for the record, I struck out both times trying to talk with original settlers. The first was a middle-aged woman with messy blond hair who worked at the giant barn of a hardware store past Pusher Street. She said she couldn’t talk to me because she had a cold.

Next I stopped at an antique shop far in the back. This part of Christiania probably never gets any tourist foot-traffic. It’s not like you get 10 grams of hash and then look for an Edwardian style lamp when you’re visiting Copenhagen. Surely this person, free from the annoyances of stoned kids and reggae music would be grateful for the company of an inquisitive seeker.

“Hi there, do you have a second to talk?”

“That depends,” says a man who reminds me of stern librarian as he emerges from the back room and crosses his arms.

I pause, realizing I’m inadvertently giving a sales pitch to him and I’ve come to a pivotal moment. I tell him that I’m writing a story on Christiania and I just wanted to know a little about what it’s like to live there.

“Oh,” he says. “No.”

“No?” I ask.

“There are lots of people around here that want to talk.”

“But you’re not one of them,” I say.

“No,” he says.

I could be peeved, but it makes sense. The old time Christianites might’ve been revolutionaries back in the day, but they probably didn’t mean to be ambassadors for the rest of their lives. I imagine they just want their hyggelig little existence.

Now would be a good time to briefly mention hyggelig, which is a key concept for Danes, and important for understanding Christiania in general. It can be sloppily translated as cozy, but that’s selling it short. A worker at Morgenstedet, a cozy little café in the back of Christiania, sits down and explains it to me. He’s short, under 5’5” and has the sandy beard and shoulder length hair so fashionable among those working in coffee house collectives on hippie-anarchist settlements.

“It comes from an Old Norse word which means protection,” he says, a fact I’ve been unable to confirm through my limited research. “It’s a feeling of deep, deep safety.” Candlelight, cold beers, hot drinks, worn wooden tables, and laughter are the hallmarks of a hyggelig atmosphere. And it is there in Christiania, just not on Pusher Street. Christianites are fine if you feel un-hyggelig coming into the town because at best, an outsider brings money. You can pay for something and get out. At worst you could be trying to take over part of their economy, trying to change where or how they live, or just trying their patience as an annoying tourist asking the same questions that they’ve been asked every day for the last 39 years. How do you live here? What’s it like? Why do you do it?

The why is an interesting question, since that first feeling of discomfort is so hard to shake. You have to work to make Christiania your own. You have to earn that hyggelig feeling. (Or possibly sleep your way into getting it.) But the people that live here did earn it. They built the town, defended it against foreign invaders and made a home.

Thomas the spokesman tells me it wasn’t always this way. The government cracked down on Pusher Street in 2004 so sellers scattered throughout Copenhagen. As a result of the violence of the unstable markets, the skills necessary to get the job done also changed. You had to be harder and muscle out the competition. The job got a lot more dangerous. When the government relaxed again on its drug policy, the people equipped to sell in Christiania were not the same kind of pushers from before the crack down. They wore bulletproof vests and they were scared. Pusher Street became a scary place.

Thomas says that it’s gotten better in the last few years. There isn’t as much violence on the street, but it’s still not the comfortable place it used to be. People are still scared. It has the feel of a frontier town, as evidenced by the fact that there’s a gender imbalance worthy of Alaska in the gold rush. On Pusher Street I see maybe one woman for every 10 young men in black jackets or black hoodies. Thomas agrees that there’s a pretty serious overabundance of single guys living in town, but notes, “the women who are out here are fucking tough.” There’s a part of me that respects the necessary grit to live in Christiania, while being scared of it too.

I go back and forth between admiration and criticism for Christiania. There are meetings that last for hours into the night to try and reach a decision, only to have a new meeting called because some people had to leave before the vote happened. But it really is a democracy and everyone has an equal say in the decisions the town makes. (You can be sure it’s democratic because it takes absolutely forever to get anything done in the meetings. Meetings under dictatorships tend to let out a bit earlier.)

Compared to the rest of Copenhagen, the town is a mess, and parts of it feel closer to a developing country than Scandinavia. On the other hand it’s essentially the old frontier revisited, and there’s something raw and romantic about the idea of making a home out of nothing.

It’s this confusion that makes Christiania a major tourist attraction. If the town gets normalized like the government wants, the number of visitors will probably drop. As Thomas puts it, it’d be “like looking at the little mermaid with her clothes on.” He makes a good point, since it’s the nakedness of the town and the experience that makes in exciting. There aren’t a lot of frontiers left, especially not in the middle of major Scandinavian cities.

The future for the town is a little brighter than it was back in 2006. The Christianites’ stubbornness has dragged the legal proceedings out over the years and the case determining their right to the land is now in the Danish Supreme Court. The government has lost a lot of political capital over the last few years, and the real estate market isn’t booming like it used to be. There’s less of a push to bulldoze the town, and besides, it’d be pretty hard to pull it off. Elections for a new government will happen within a year and things could change, though Thomas “won’t count on it.”

I think it’s the volatility that ultimately attracts me to Christiania. It’s always changing, it’s always in peril, and it’s always new. It’s being created as you look at it, and it’s so small that your very presence changes it as well. You might not know what you’re a part of, but you’re a part of it. It’s not paradise, but it’s not a glorified back alley of shady drug deals either. It’s a place that has never existed before, and when it’s gone, will likely never exist again.

Past the pushers, the hardware barn, and the cafes, you hit the lake and see young couples and friends hanging out over bottles of Tuborg. You’ve come to the edge of Christiania, and it will be dark soon. You turn around and walk back down Pusher Street, stopping again at the arch, only this side says “Now Entering the EU.” You enter. You leave.

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  • Jessicameganroberts

    Brilliant piece….

  • Rich Jackman

    Great article. Far more accurate, thoughtful and evocative of the place than dozens of articles I’ve read about Christiania in the mainstream media. I studied Christiania for my Master’s thesis and am now working on a documentary on it, so I feel knowledgeable enough to say you’ve done a great job.

  • Drlaj

    I really got a feeling for this place. It seems a bit scary but very compelling. I like the way you hooked me in to the article.

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