Ever since the early 1970s, when the first hippies arrived in this leafy island enclave, there have been tussles with the state. Then, affordable housing was in short supply, and many young Danes — scarred, like many in the West, by news footage of the Vietnam War — had dreams of living in a conflict-free Utopia. They started squatting around Copenhagen, living by their own rules, but were repeatedly evicted, until one day, they found their way into an old military barracks in the middle of the city, on a rambling plot of land. It had toilets, habitable buildings and electricity. Berries grew in the gardens, and fish swam freely in the network of lakes and canals separating this area from the rest of Copenhagen. For the squatters, it was perfect. And before long, the roots of an autonomous “free town” called Christiania (after the name of pre-1925 Oslo, home to prominent anti-establishment figures) had started to take hold.
“It was fantastic to be young and do what you wanted to,” says actress Britta Lillesoe, one of the first people to move permanently into the commune. Now, as then, she helps promote Christiania’s cultural activities, from theatrical productions to photo exhibitions. “We made dinners together, had concerts. There were artists, shipyard workers, alcoholics and musicians — everyone together. It was a kind of bohemian life.”
Amble away from the paranoid eyes of Pusher Street, past makeshift repair shops, community buildings and restaurants, and it’s clear that this bohemian way hasn’t been forgotten. Outside a tumbledown shack that’s flooding the street with reverb-drenched Led Zeppelin songs, I spot young mothers chatting happily with teenage skateboarders and middle-aged hippies. A man sits serenely a few yards away, painting the scene, while the neighbors putter around in their gardens, tending to homegrown vegetables and nodding politely, sometimes wearily, when tourists wander by.
Color and creativity ooze from every cracked wall and hand-painted street sign. Intricate, trippy murals line the cobbled pathways, and the higgledy-piggledy houses impress with their homemade roofs and rambling rose gardens. For those with spiritual hunger, there’s a peace pagoda strung with Tibetan prayer flags, while Cafe Nemoland, just off Pusher Street, serves omelets and lasagna to those with more earthly munchies. And usually, there are a lot of those: In the summertime, as many as 10,000 tourists can flow into Christiania every day, making the commune Copenhagen’s second-most popular attraction, after Tivoli Gardens, a cutesy amusement park founded in the 19th century. A good number of the district’s visitors frankly come to buy drugs, but others content themselves with ogling the many musicians, painters and thinkers who’ve chosen to live here.
This strange status as a tourist attraction can’t be what the founders had in mind when they laid out plans for a free and self-supporting town. But their journey, now into its fifth decade, has never been easy.
A social experiment
From the start, conservative politicians saw these potholed streets as a hotbed of drugs and crime. But in the summer of 1972, the residents agreed to pay for the water and electricity they used. In return, the government agreed that Christiania could continue to set its own rules. It was a kind of social experiment with the principles of nonviolence, self-governance and sustainability at its core. A yellowed poster outlining these ideals is still stapled onto a notice board near the entrance to the commune, a fading reminder of its beginnings.
As Christiania grew, however, so did its problems, and even after the “junk blockade” of 1979, when residents banned hard drugs, more wrangles with the state erupted. Public opinion split over whether Christiania was a beacon of freedom that needed protection from state control or a troublesome blight that needed to be wiped out. Sometimes bulldozers came; sometimes it was the police. But the community carried on, establishing a bakery, a school and even its own jazz club, where blues bands play behind clouds of cigarette smoke, untroubled by the public health law that stops most Danes from lighting up in bars.
In recent years, egged on by reports of violence related to the Pusher Street market, politicians have focused on “normalizing” Christiania. The most contentious part of this process has been to force the residents — naturally opposed to the whole idea of ownership — to buy the piece of land they’ve been occupying for more than 40 years. In July, they made the first payment, and the Christianites went from squatters to legal landowners. Did their dream of an autonomous community die with that deal?
Not completely, says Britta’s husband, Nils, as we chat in the kitchen of the wooden house they share, just a five-minute walk from the grocery store on Pusher Street. Bird song floods in through the open windows; on the wall opposite us is a cartoonish painting of a policeman. One of his arms is wrapped around a mustachioed hippie; the other hugs a hooded drug pusher.
“When we made the deal with the last government, we wanted to be sure that the houses were owned by a foundation, not by individuals,” he explains. “And in that way, individuals should not be able to sell their flat or their house to someone else.”
This foundation, run by residents, was set up to raise funds and apply for a bank loan. Christianites were able to buy about 19 acres of the 84-acre plot, which sits in the middle of the well-to-do district of Christianshavn. (Just a five-minute walk from Christiania’s graffiti-daubed walls is Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants.) But the $12.5 million deal — which many observers regard as a superb value, especially given the location — means that residents can take legal ownership of many of the existing structures and even build new ones. Financed largely by a loan, the purchase has given residents a kind of security that they’ve never really known. As Britta tells me, stirring her coffee pensively, “We don’t feel as stressed as we have been.”
And as recent events show, Christiania is still living by its own rules. In June, a Danish TV reporter tried to capture secret footage of the drug deals taking place on Pusher Street. He was caught by the pushers and, according to local news reports, forced to leave Christiania naked. And there’s no doubting that the drug trade — thought to be worth nearly $170 million a year — is still going strong. Some are concerned that the gangs pumping cannabis onto Pusher Street (including, it’s said, the Hells Angels) are taking advantage of the residents’ tendency to accept people from all walks of life. Or, as Britta describes those who live here, “black sheep from all classes.”
Nevertheless, Denmark’s buildings minister, Martin Lidegaard, who has been involved in the buyout process, says that he is confident about Christiania’s future. “The people can now put all their forces into making Christiania a creative and innovative place, instead of fighting for survival,” he says. And he hopes that the buyout “will make it easier for the police to fight drugs and organized crime.”
However, change could take time in a place where seeing joints rolled, sold and smoked is a part of everyday life. “We have to be realistic,” says Lidegaard. “It would be a lie to say that we could get rid of all crime problems in Christiania in a few weeks. Crime and drug deals have been there for many years, and it will take years to get completely rid of them.”
But as the many white beards and graying dreadlocks on Pusher Street suggest, there’s a more fundamental problem facing Christiania. The average age of the 800 or so residents is now 45 (the average in Denmark is 41), and many want to use their new status as landowners to build more houses to accommodate youngsters. “We really want younger people to come here,” says Nils. “Not those who want to earn fast money on Pusher Street, but young people who have ideals and want to live this life, where you try to diminish your level of consumption and reduce your use of energy.”
Today, uncovering the quieter corners of Christiania is an intriguing, often lovely experience. The streets are car-free (most residents cycle), and although iPhones seem as popular here as anywhere else in design-conscious Copenhagen, there’s still a sense of rebellion in the air. This can bring problems, but for those who have been part of the community since the early days, nowhere else would feel like home.
“I’ve lived in this house for 30 years, and if I lived here for another 30 years, I would be 99,” says Nils, who describes Pusher Street and its problems as “two worlds apart” from the rest of Christiania. “I’ll probably stay here for as long as I can walk.”
For now, at least, his future in Christiania looks secure. And for as long as Christiania is allowed to follow its own path, the tourists will keep coming.
Vickers is a freelance journalist and guidebook author based in the United Kingdom and Sweden. His Web site is www.stevevickers.co.uk.