“Christiania? It’s not what it used to be. You should go explore Nyhavn instead, they’ve got great beer there. Or take some photos of the Little Mermaid – most people seem to like it. Christiania is different now, and anyways, this time of day there are probably just cops there. Walking in pairs.
I had this nagging feeling of stumbling upon a big conspiracy, with people doing their best to stop me from exposing some deep, dark Danish secret. The sheer thought of Danes having dark secrets – apart from pastry recipes – would’ve seemed laughable just before I arrived to Copenhagen. I wasn’t so sure about that anymore. The young local software developer I stopped outside Copenhagen IT University had already spent five minutes trying to convince me to make a U-turn. It did sound like he knew what he was talking about.
The guy decided to defuse the situation: “Fuck off now, I’ll break your face with your fucking camera if I see you again here
“Well, am I at least moving in the right direction? I’ll make sure to take it easy, and after all, you probably haven’t been there yourself for a while. Maybe it’s not that bad?”
My attempt to put the conversation back on track failed miserably:
“No way, I’ve never been in Christiania. I wouldn’t advise you to go there, either. In any case, they don’t like Swedes down there, especially not tourists.”
“Actually, I’m from Russia”, I said.
“Really? Well, they definitely don’t like Russians. They don’t need any competition.”
The despondent look on my face probably made him a bit feel sorry for me, so he added in a softer tone: “The direction is right. But you should at least hide your camera!”
Proclamation of Independence
Let’s take a step back though. “Freetown Christiania” appeared in 1971 when local hippies occupied abandoned military barracks in the outskirts of Copenhagen and proclaimed independence. The name had nothing to do with Christianity: the area was named after king Christian IV.
The squat with its 34 hectares of land near Copenhagen city is one of the biggest ones in Europe. It’s now been 40 years since the occupation started, triggering a long lasting war with the authorities. Denmark’s minister of defence refused to “liberate” the old barracks, leaving the dirty eviction task to Metropolitan police. The police found itself facing fierce resistance from the hundreds of new inhabitants and was finally forced to withdraw from the area.
The whole matter ended up in Danish Parliament. With elections looming, a rather remarkable compromise was reached: the inhabitants of Christiania promised to start paying for their water and electicity. In exchange for that, the government declared the area to be a free “social experiment zone”.
Coming elections brought a decisive defeat for the ruling party. A new set of politicians celebrated victory by passing a new resolution on vacating Christiania within the next few years, as soon as a suitable alternative could be found. The issue was then quickly forgotten as they turned their attention to important matters of state. So did the citizens of Christiania. A new state flag featuring three yellow dots on red background got approved. The legislative power was unilaterally taken away from Copenhagen City Council and given to the people of Christiania: from now on, all important decisions were to be passed by common vote, with most citizens present. Common conscription service was introduced: local inhabitans had to dedicate a few days per month to community work.
Pigs, chicken and children were crawling in the rural dust around old barracks
There was certainly no shortage of work. Some Christianites had to provide food, others guarded country borders fences from cops and other intruders, a select few set out to collect money to pay for municipal services. Pigs, chicken and children were crawling in the rural dust around old barracks; flowerbeds flaunted their green hemp colors – with cannabis being sold on the spot to visitors. The locals got their grass for free, of course. Christiania society embraced the “let’s divide everything” policy. For instance, private ownership was largely banned: it was forbidden to own and sell houses or even cars. Violence, guns and heavy drugs were banned as well. Everything else was allowed.
Christiania became the bohemian capital of Denmark: this is where you went to see cool concerts and underground theatre shows. Apart from attracting local cultural elite, the area also became a magnet for drug addicts. This led to a war on heavy drugs proclaimed by the otherwise tolerant freetown inhabitants. Getting rid of heavy drug users was important in order to get rid of violent crimes and reduce the amount of police raids. People simply got sick of getting their stashes confiscated, getting beaten, arrested and interrogated by police on a monthly basis due to a handful of heroine addicts in the area.
Drug market had to be regulated: from then on, all illegal substances except for marijuana were banned. Weed could only be traded on Pusher street in the middle of the village. Anyone ignoring the new rules got thoroughly beaten and expelled from the community. The police was however unimpressed, and so their raids continue to this date.
Weed could only be traded on Pusher street in the middle of the village. Anyone ignoring the new rules got thoroughly beaten and expelled from the community.
The community lived through the eighties seemingly without taking notice of the impending eviction threat. Forcibly removing some 600 peoople from the area threatened to become a political suicide for any government. The residents entrenched themselves even further by building shacks and houses of all shapes and sizes, where whole families still live without access to electricity or water. Tourism became a significant source of income: every summer, a lot of visitors started to fill the streets of Christiania, anxious to get a glimpse of the surviving hippie community getting busy chopping wood and tending to the cannabis plants.
The local police eventually opened a whole department dedicated to fight cannabis abuse, which led to significant under-the-counter trade controlled by criminal groups. Pusher street was now patrolled by bikers providing “protection” from the police. The goods on sale would promptly disappear at the first sight of a police officer, and trade posts would quickly transform into regular benches. The police would then be greeted by baldheaded guys in Adidas jumpsuit uniforms, peacefully discussing pholosiphical matters.
Standing at Copenhagen Central railway station, it’s difficult to guess that Scandinavia’s largest pot market is basically around the corner. The city centre looks idyllic: this is probably how many people imagine Germany: buses leaving strictly on time, bicyclists keeping strictly to their blue one-way lanes, and life in general taking strictly regulated turns.
The Danes themselves tend to think they’re some sort of free-spirited anarchists, with neighbouring Sweden being the prime example of a heavily regulated society where everyone has to adhere to a large set of draconian government rules. For instance, danish kids are free to ride their bikes without involving helmets. In Sweden, that is a privilege reserved for adults. Danes think it’s normal to have a glass of strong beer for lunch, while Swedes drink weak, 3.2 percent beer. Danish tabloids have no problem publishing large photos of naked women, while Swedes prudishly cover them with bras. In any case, Christiania really is something that couldn’t survive in neighbouring Scandinavian countries.
Entering the town
The road to Christiania was lined by odd stickers, graffiti and parked bicycles with brightly coloured plastic beer boxes used as bike baskets. The amounts of graffiti was rising: house walls, cars and even trees have seemingly been absorbing bright rainbow colors of Danish underground community for years. All that was missing was a hookah-smoking caterpillar offering to have a bite of a mushroom – or at least to inhale some glue. Even without a caterpillar, I did some inhaling while passing by a coffee place near Christiania entrance which was covered in a sweetish smog. It looked like the software developer giving me directions earlier was right: seeing my system camera made people turn and hide something under the table.
A shabby brick building next to the coffee place with the important sounding name of Art Museum hosted a small collection of local handicrafts. The exhibits were mostly made of recycled materials: empty bottles, beer boxes, car tires and old bikes. However, I couldn’t find the main exhibition piece – an authentic old hash stall that was in active use as late as in 2004. It was donated to Danish National Museum.
Despite Christiania being the second most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, no one likes publicity here. Photography is strictly forbidden, which is announced on large, half-meter high boards in the main street. Whenever possible, the tourists are collected at the main gate and admitted to the freetown with a guide. The illegal trade gets suspended.
Naturally, the rules didn’t stop me from taking photos – I simply needed to capture some pictures of the freetown before it becomes completely transformed by Danish authorities.
Here are the main gates to the parallell world:
The smell of weed became diluted by the stench coming from public piles of manure and compost, strategically placed along the streets.
This is Pusher street, the main road of Christiania. Pusher str. market was officially closed down several years ago, instead, the weed is sold from improvised “stalls” in the middle of the street. I took a quick snap of serious looking guys in Adidas jumpsuits, hid my camera under the jacket and did my best to look like Jason Bourne, resolutely walking forward while staring into the ground. So far, the luck was on my side.
The ground was littered by cigarette butts and weed waiting to be harvested:
A message board was hanging over the lone marijuana plant, with a cute little notice from Danish police nailed there:
Today, Friday 13 of May 2011, the police removed hash stalls that were discovered on Pusher street and surrounding territory.
Please call 3521 3407 if you have any questions.
This is where I got carried away taking photos of wall paintings, and got caught by the heavy fist of local justice system. The fist was firmly squeezing the camera hanging from my neck, forcing me to stay put.
“Hey, I don’t take phtos of people”, I said sheepishly.
“Shut the fuck up and show me the photos. PHOTOS! SHOW THEM!! – The young bloke with a nice scar on his shaved skull was in no joking mood: “NEXT! NEXT! DELETE IT! NEXT!”
The heavy system camera felt like a stone on my neck, the strap was being yanked down at every “next”.
“What the fuck is that?! Are you completely stupid?” – the Pusher street photo was clearly not his favourite. This time, the neck strap went upwards, slightly strangling me in the process. “Just fucking delete everything!”.
Fortunately, I chose not to object to that, especially since most picures could be restored later. The guy finally decided to defuse the situation: “Fuck off now, I’ll break your face with your fucking camera if I see you again here
There’s no escape
There was no choice but to retreat to Christiania’s “suburbs”, suspiciously looking like an old summer house colony – with parking lots, hand painted “look up for kids!” signs and neat garbage containers. One of the cars had a boat trailer with a “Preserve Christiania!” sticker on it. Even in the unlikely case of Jimi Hendrix still being popular here, people probably enjoy his music through headphones. There’s almost no one left here prepared to man the barricades. The “normalisation” efforts initiated by the government are clearly yielding results.
Most buildings in Christiania are supposed to be demolished. Its inhabitants will eventually be subjected to taxation and possibly displacement. However, people are not giving up. The program of elimination of the freetown includes the possibility of legalization, by buying out property from the government at a lower-than-market price. That is easier said than done: the property prices have risen significantly during the last 40 years. Despite the discount, buying out the whole area would cost about 10 million Euro.
In november 2011, the economics advisor of Christiania – Risenga Manghezi – came back from a trip to USA. He was dispatched to New York to gather money by selling “people’s shares” on Wall Street. Christiania actually got noted on the stock market: for a while it was possible to buy freetown shares in USA.
The success was limited: the total sum raised was $10.