Down by the grocery store, Pusher Street is buzzing. Wasps flit noisily between the trash cans, which are overflowing with empty beer bottles, and little swarms of tourists crowd around the market stalls, cooing excitedly at the variety of products on offer. Lined up like cheeses at a delicatessen are blocks of resin the size of hockey pucks, see-through bags full of swollen buds, and ready-to-smoke joints slotted into sealable plastic tubes. All around, there’s a pungent whiff of skunk.
I’m watching the midday sun cut through the smoky haze when I hear the shout go up. “Hey, no photos!” barks one of the sellers, stomping angrily toward the offending tourist. But she’s already walking away, stuffing her camera into her rucksack. An innocent mistake, perhaps, but by snapping a picture, she has put the pushers and their customers in danger. Because despite appearances, buying and selling drugs in Christiania, Copenhagen’s notorious hippie commune, is illegal. And a police crackdown could — theoretically at least — happen at any time.
(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post) - Denmark map, Copenhagen map, Christiania map
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.