An anarchist commune on its way to normality

 

The entrance to Christiania.

The entrance to Christiania.

Christiania is famous for hippies, the public selling of cannabis and an alternative lifestyle. But the Danish government has been working on its normalization – with success.

“‘An alternative society, which becomes normal’ that is a paradox,” admits Kirsten Larsen Mhoja, a friendly, red-haired, middle-aged mother, who is a member of Christiania’s press and authority contact group. For the commune, founded in 1971 with the goal to build up and maintain an alternative society, this paradox has become reality.

Just a 15 minute walk from Copenhagen’s city centre you are supposed to enter a new world and you still do. Christiania is surrounded by painted walls, a big lake and few small entries, where you can walk or cycle into the “freetown” – cars have to stay outside.

Most of the houses are quite old, but they still look beautiful because people have painted them in various colours and motifs like pirates, flowers or just the commune’s red and yellow flag. Furthermore they are surrounded by nature. After a few minutes walk you reach Christiania’s beautiful lake and the small forest, which stretches along its shore. The settlements spread wide in this area, a few of them stand far away from the touristic centre, isolated in a quiet part of the forest.

Christiania’s centre itself, especially on sunny days, is really busy. The Green light district, where cannabis is sold publicly, and the biggest restaurant, Café Nemoland, where live bands play in the summer, attract a lot of visitors. People hang around on every corner and enjoy beer, barbecue and joints, which creates the commune’s typical smell.

“It is a wonderful place to relax, which also offers a lot of culture like a jazz club and a theatre. I often come here after work,” says Linda Sørensen, a young woman, who lives in Copenhagen, while she is sitting with her boyfriend and sharing a joint among many others at the lake’s shore.

Next to the green light district, a "bevar Christiania" (maintain Christiania) welcomes visitors with merchandise and information about the area.

Next to the green light district, a “bevar Christiania” (maintain Christiania) welcomes visitors with merchandise and information about the area.

Change to stability

But since 2004 the Danish government has tried to normalize – in official terms to legalize – the self-proclaimed “freetown.” The inhabitants have fought this process. They had to face court trials for the right to use the area, and lost. In the end a compromise was made: The Christianites had to buy the land they once occupied for the “cheaper” price of 87 million kroner in 2012. “We are not a ‘freetown’ anymore, but a buying town,” criticizes the tourist guide Svensson. The commune, which originally opposed materialism and capitalism, has established a fund to raise the funds. In this way people who sympathize with Christiania can contribute to its survival.

However the purchase gave the Christianites legal ownership of their land for the first time. Therefore, the Christiania Act of 1989 will end this July, which marks the symbolic end of Christiania’s special status. “The act is not necessary anymore. We are finally normalized,” explains Larsen.

One would guess that this normality would be a problem for the Christianites, who moved here with the goal to live an alternative life, but that’s not the case. “The ownership is pretty good. That’s the best development for many, many years,” says local painter Mario Orozco, one of the many artists who live here, and the majority agree with him.

“Life here has become stable. There is not a lot of movement anymore. At the beginning that was different, it was disorganised and weird,” remembers Svensson. The 60-year old woman, who stayed in Christiania after a holiday, because she “didn’t find her way home anymore,” is no exception. Since 1977 she has lived in the ‘lion house,’ here the buildings don’t have addresses, but names.

Also Larsen is quite happy with the “freetown’s” change. “Life itself has got a lot better. At the beginning we had no water, no electricity, and no heating. We were really poor. Now we have come close to the standards on the outside,” he says.

In 1971 squatters occupied old, unused military barracks to found and proclaimed the existence of “freetown Christiania,” where they wanted to live in libertarian and peaceful anarchism, ruled by their own laws. The name ‘Christiania’ originates from the former Danish king Christian IV (1577-1648), who commissioned the fortress’ building in his reign.

Copenhagen’s tourist magnet

Most Christianites work regular jobs and pay taxes. “Now we bring even additional money to Copenhagen,” says Larsen.

The most important source of income is tourism. A lot of Christianites work in one of the several restaurant and stalls in Christiania which are flooded with people, especially on sunny weekends. They stroll through the centre and take pictures of every colourful house, visit the merchandise shop and stay for a cheap meal (at least by Copenhagen standards) in Café Nemoland or one of the smaller cafés.

With over 500,000 visitors per year, Christiania has become, after the amusement park Tivoli, Copenhagen’s second biggest tourist destination. “We never thought we would become a tourist attraction. But today we live from this. Still we have to take care that we don’t become too much like Tivoli. Christiania has to stay like it is,” estimates Larsen.

That brings up the question what the former hippy paradise is right now. Is it still worthy of its reputation or has it become mainstream in the normalization process and ended up as a simple tourist venue?

“The look has changed a lot since the founding. But that is more physical. What the people here think has stayed the same. We are a political symbol and a social institution. Everyone, who comes in search for help to Christiania will find it,” states Larsen proudly.

A ‘monocriminal’ place

One more special thing about the “freetown” remains, the public cannabis selling. Just after a few minutes of walking you reach the green light district, where marijuana is sold openly. On your way there you can already see people sitting around smoking it and smell it in the air.

But that doesn’t mean that it is legal here. In the last few years the government has strengthened its effort to close the drug market. Police raids have become a common method used to clamp down on drug dealing.

Keeping this open drug market under control has led to the creation of special rules by the people who run it, which you are informed of by big signs at the entries to so-called Pusherstreet: 1) Have fun – the same rule as everywhere in Christiania, 2) Don’t run, 3) Don’t take pictures. Due to the illegality of selling, people are really cautious about being photographed, which would be proof of their crime.

At several points guides stand and watch out not only for people who take pictures, but mainly for the police, so they can inform their colleagues in time for them to flee. They are big, muscular and aggressive looking men, a few have threatening dogs with them.

“They are quite successful. The cops have to be very quick, when they come, because they don’t want to frighten all the tourists. So when the police come, everyone runs away quickly and the green light district is suddenly empty. But half an hour later it looks the same again,” says Svensson with a big grin on her face.

The street itself is 100 metres long. All down its sides, there are stalls next to each other, where mostly huge amounts of cannabis are offered, but at some shelters you can also buy clothes, food and smoking paraphernalia. The dealers stay in the background, some of them hide themselves behind curtains, hoods or sunglasses. Taking a closer look you see that some pushers even carry guns, which totally convinces you that you don’t want to look at them too closely.

Due to countless visitors, who saunter through the street and look at the graffiti art on the walls, the atmosphere is still friendly on sunny days. But if it’s cold and rainy, the dealers wait for customers silently amongst each other, which create a strange and unsafe feeling.

“The scene has become very professional in the last few years. Earlier it was really relaxed here, but today there are gangsters and a kind of mafia involved, who gain a lot of money,” criticizes Larsen. “But that something criminal is happening here is the job of the police and not my responsibility. We are somehow a ‘monocriminal’ area here,” she adds, reflecting to the normal peaceful lifestyle in Christiania.

Despite the problems, the Christianites want to keep their drug market. “The fact that we are selling hash out on the streets has been good for Copenhagen for many years, because we have managed to seperate the hard drugs from the soft drugs. That creates a better picture for the youth. Moreover it is part of the identity here. I think it represents the freedom, but the criminality is a problem,” says artist Mario Orozco. While Larsen muses, “We want to legalize it, and then you could abandon the whole criminal milieu. I would like to have just a few, small stores.” This subject is even being discussed right now in Denmark, where the municipality of Copenhagen supports the legalization.

 

A sample of Christiania's street art.

A sample of Christiania’s street art.

Self-organised area

Until then, the Danish police will continue to visit Christiania regularly. Christiania has it’s own laws – no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no biker colours, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of dynamite, no stolen goods – all laws imposed by the inhabitants themselves.

People, who don’t obey them, get thrown out by the community. “If you behave badly, you normally have to leave for one or two years and then you get a second chance,” clarifies Orozco.

These decisions are discussed in collective meetings, which are held every month. Christiania is not ruled by a leader or representatives, but by a consensus democracy. “So everyone has to agree with every decision. Sometimes that takes quite a long time, but it’s working,” estimates Larsen.

The commune is divided into seven areas which have their individual conferences. Big problems are discussed by all the inhabitants in a general meeting. “We organise ourselves completely on our own. We also have our own administration and infrastructure,” tells Larsen happily.

Also the area is used by all the inhabitants together. “No one possesses his house himself. When you want to move here, you have to get accepted by the community. Then you get a place to stay. When you move on, you get nothing,” explains Larsen. Every inhabitant has to pay a user fee and an amount per square metre, every month.

Since the purchase, life has become more expensive. Due to this, the Christianites want to apply for housing aid. “As we are normal now, our poor inhabitants should get the same as the others in Copenhagen. We have the same duties, so we should also have the same rights,” hopes Larsen. At the moment the Christianites are negotiating with the municipality of Copenhagen about this issue.

Keep fighting

They are also engaged in a debate about their homes with of the Danish government, who has created an architecture guide, and with whom the Christianites differ strongly. “We are supposed to build a lot of new buildings, but we want to keep the area small and green. Thankfully we get a lot of support from our neighbours, who also like to come and relax here. And if the pressure gets too much, we will fight back. That is our Christiania and it should stay like this,” expresses Larsen.

Tourism is a big help for the Christianites in these discussions. “If it wasn’t for the visitors, we would have been closed many years ago. They give us a lot of attention in all the conflicts with the government, which is also profiting from our income here,” explains Orozco.

In this way the Christianites want to preserve their so called “freetown” as it is at the moment. “Christiania is still a political symbol. Freedom! It is important to keep this. But we will have several more fights to fight,” declares Larsen. “As long as people want to make this place normal like everywhere else, then there is something to fight for, because if we became completely normal, then we might as well close down,” confirms Orozco.

 

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