Crossing the bridge into Christianshavn is like stepping into any other upmarket district of any other city. But, turning the corner, the unsuspecting tourist is greeted with what at first appears to be a park lined with graffiti-ridden sheds.
This is Christiania, Copenhagen’s legendary free town that began as a social experiment in the heady seventies, when morals were loose and youth rebellion was tightly clung to.
It was 1971, to be precise, when a group of young romantic optimists headed by Jacob Ludvigsen, a young editor, called squatting rights on an abandoned army barracks that lie mere blocks away from the parliament building. Their aim? To create a radical new settlement that disentangled itself from the Danish government. Essentially, the new tenants could indulge in free love, experiment with all manner of drugs, and practice alternative lifestyles in a haven that was not tied to the same laws as the rest of the country.
Why did the government allow this? May I remind you that it was the seventies, a time when people threw sensibleness in the air and embraced difference. The Danish government allowed it to serve as a social experiment where new forms of living could be explored in an insulated bubble.
Since then, the fascination with Christiania has exploded in both good and bad ways. Many people were painfully curious to see how an independent community could function in the heart of Denmark’s capital. And rightly so – how could a place be such a major part of the city but at the same time remain completely separate?
Christiania even has its own flag. And national anthem. In fact, the national anthem is pretty telling about the community:
People get filled with shit about us, thousands are taught to hate our guts, without knowing who we are
It couldn’t try to differentiate itself from “mainland” Copenhagen more if it wanted to.
Drugs, Crime, and Violence
However, the free town isn’t as free as it once was. Certain rules have been put into place since the hedonistic seventies; no cars, no stealing, no guns, no bullet-proof vests, no hard drugs. The latter seems a strange law considering Christiania was once (and perhaps still is) most famous for Pusher Street, a strip that at one point marked the drug dealing district of the area. Now, only pot and hash are available and many of the “pushers” have packed up their stalls and trade from the safety of their jacket pockets.
This came after a series of violent incidents swept through the area in the eighties, including a drugs-related murder. Past and present residents blame the biker gangs that oversaw Christiania’s wheeling and dealing for the influx of crime, a group who were banned soon after the commotion.
Tragically, the late seventies saw the deaths of ten heroin addicts in the community which called for a swift ban on all hard drugs. A bold move for Christiania, which once prided itself on freewill and the liberty to experiment with chemical substances. Perhaps not so different from the mainstream government after all?
Today, the near 1000 residents lead relaxed existences (running in Christiania is prohibited because it “panics” people); many work as artisans, but all make good use of the strong café culture and abundance of live music venues.
This exaggerated state of bliss shouldn’t fool anyone, though. In fact, Christiania has been shaken up almost irreversibly in the last decade as the new liberal-conservative government that was elected in 2001 has tried to “normalise” the free town.
At the moment, the Ministry of Defence owns the arty army barracks; yes, residents have built their own homes and created the community from scratch using resources they have, but they are essentially borrowing the land; something the government has begun honing in on over the past few years, especially since 2004 when dozens of Christiania drug dealers were jailed for carrying out their trade. Over time, they were replaced by gangs from Turkey, Palestine, and the Balkans, throwing a whole other dimension over the once carefree community.
The struggle has shoved Christiania into the spotlight, though, which has attracted an immeasurable amount of support from all across Europe and the USA. Now the community is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Copenhagen. Did the residents expect this? Is this what they wanted?
Well, probably not, but no one can deny that it has safeguarded them in some way. Whilst some Christianians complain that they are not caged animals solely positioned for the purpose of voyeuristic tourists, it is obvious that curious visitors have created a protective barrier around the community. You see, as long as Christiania remains a popular site then it can remain as it is, albeit it in a constant state of limbo.
I guess it must be strange having millions of people a year trudge through your home, poke around in your local amenities, and gawp at anything and everything. But what did they expect? Creating something so different from the norm is always going to attract intrigue; humans are notoriously curious beings.
Should Christiania’s residents be thankful? Well, as much as they groan about the ever-increasing hordes of visitors, these ‘unwelcome’ guests have probably saved the community from being bulldozed numerous times over the last couple of decades. Of course, it’s not ideal being at the wrong end of a voyeuristic microscope, but it’s a small price to pay to keep Christiania and its values alive.
Today, residents of the community and outsiders are fighting to keep the hippy haven an independent appendage of Copenhagen; Christiania flags fly throughout the city with the words “Save Christiania” scrawled across them in the hope that Christiania won’t be repossessed along with the city’s independent spirit.
My view on Christiania
I was in and out of Christiania before you could say “freewill”. Not because it was small – far from it, in fact – but because the atmosphere felt heavy with unease. It was as if stepping foot into it unleashed the years of turbulence which circled around visitors’ heads, goading them in a way that no other Danish tourist attraction does.
It was so different to the rest of Copenhagen, too, that it was hard to believe it was part of the same city. I guess it isn’t, though, in a way.
And as for the voyeuristic aspect? It felt like there was too much tension to look anyone in the eye, let alone stare open mouthed.
It’s difficult to sum up the feelings I had whilst there. It was strange and it made me feel sad but I don’t know why. I’m aware that doesn’t suffice, but it’s the best I can do.
I admit I didn’t know much about the freetown before I went. But, coming home and doing some research has partially clarified why I felt like I did whilst I was there.