A city within a city, the 42-year old “freetown” of Christiania, Copenhagen, has long since declared its independence from the world. Held close at heart by all artists, hippies and weed smokers, but hated by politicians and property developers, Christiania’s tumultuous history is still being written.
It's just a bridge and two corners from the grand parliament castle square and the adjacent stock exchange building. Starting from these conjoined symbols of representative democracy and market capitalism, you cross the canal to the old Christianshavn area, picturesque with its cobblestone streets, wickerwork houses and boats in the stream. Homeless people and alcoholics begin to appear on your right, across from expensive apartments and ministry offices. From there, you take a left down Prinsessegade (Princess Street), and it takes hardly 30 seconds on the bike before you see the main entrance to Christiania, “the freetown”. “CHRISTIANIA” is painted in golden letters across the iconic entrance sign, which consists of a wooden plank nailed up between two totem-like poles. This gate is far from being the only thing here to assure you that you've just crossed a border. Graffiti is rampant, and low wooden buildings by gravel paths have taken the stage instead of the typical 'asphalt-and-five-storey-block' image of Copenhagen. The colours have become plenty, and the shrubs and trees seem to grow more freely here - in contrast to the city boulevards where lined-up, neatly trimmed trees stand in file like prisoners of war, marking civilisation's victory over nature.
The popular southern part of Christiania. Photo: Hugo Guyader
Christiania now and then
Anno 2013: the freetown seems to be frequented by five major groups of people: subculturals, gang thugs, weed smokers, tourists and the authentic 'Christianite' population. The popular part of the freetown is constantly buzzing, even in winter when most Copenhagen streets are all but empty. Weed stands sell all kinds of smokable grass in the open, concerts and exhibitions are advertised on home-made signposts, and on sunny days, the crowds in the bars and cafés extend onto the surrounding grassy areas. There is generally a comfortable and peaceful atmosphere, but a small nervous twitch lies just below the surface. The future is uncertain. The threat of 'normalisation' is present in the shape of patroling policemen. Meanwhile, gang members walk by to check up on their weed market, reminding us of a different threat to Christiania. Nobody has quite forgotten the tragedy of four years ago, when a member of a rivaling gang threw a hand grenade into a crowd of people, killing four.
Well hidden from all this commotion, behind bushes and canals, the DIY-residential area of Christiania stretches northwards along obsolete maritime fortifications.
Christiania in the early 1970s. Photo: Christiania.org
Anno 1971: the slum stormers, a group of young residence activists, break down the fence enclosing the abandoned Bådsmandsstræde Barracks. The invasion comes in the wake of a severe residence crisis in Copenhagen, with young people in large numbers being unable to find a place to live. The stormers found the free town of Christiania, based on the main concept of “a self-governing society in which each individual can develop freely while observing responsibility towards the community”. In this sense, Christiania was thought to be - and to quite an impressive extent did become - a liberal-socialist utopia. At the heart of Christiania lay the principle of self-discipline. There was no law and no justice system - each individual was to be trusted, and expected to respect the community, but would otherwise be free to do as (s)he pleased.
Miraculously, Christiania survived beyond the first few days, mainly thanks to a massive emigration from other parts of the city to the new freetown. Within a short while, there were simply too many people occupying too much space, and the police was unable to carry out the will of the governing system. Right from the first days, then, Christiania was a struggle between the will of an unrecognized group of people, united by a need for a new and independent way of living, and the will of the established market-democratic power structure. Because of its liberal and inclusive principles, Christiania soon became a magnet for everyone who felt throttled by the surrounding society: the homeless, foreigners, homosexuals, the political far left and members of various subcultures. The newly erupting art scene flourished (music, theatre, performance, crafts...), revealing the existence of a previously untapped art market, now opened by the creation of a different space in the city.
'Slum stormers' breaking down the wall to Bådsmandsstræde Barracks, beginning an era that has lasted 42 years so far. Photo: Christiania.org
The settlers had utilized the old military buildings and begun to make their own constructions. By 1972, Christiania settled a deal with the government, but when the political situation changed in 1973, the government once again sought the clearing and destruction of Christiania. This tendency would be defining: shifting governments viewed Christiania differently, and the threat of eviction was never far off. Through the 1970s and further on, Christiania had to struggle hard for its continued existence. In the meantime, it grew in size and popularity. While Christiania was still frowned upon by the political establishment, the artistic establishment took their side. The greatest Danish rock acts recorded a best-selling tribute album and famous architects wrote enthusiastically about the “Christiania idea”. Towards the end of the 70s, Christiania inevitably became the home of punk culture - the ultimate anti-system art movement.
In the midst of all this politics and cultural exploration, how was everyday life in the freetown? According to one resident, living there in 1978-79, it was not a cakewalk. “In the cold winter, all I could do for heating was to burn coal and firewood. Eventually I acquired an oil heater, but it was no easy feat keeping warm. When spring finally came, I could tell because all my water pipes had broken. And when I called in a plumber to fix them, another resident went and punctured his tires because cars were not allowed in Christiania”. Imagination and desire to create were abundant though, with residents making a living as craftsmen, bicycle smiths, grocers, or running public baths. It was a relatively closed economy with its own currency, but with money coming in from outside through the bars and the weed trade. Decisions were taken at 'common meetings', called on a regular basis by the appointed 'info group'. These meetings were long and often chaotic, with no rules for procedure and with everyone and his dog being allowed to talk. Still, decisions on important issues were actually made at the meetings, and once they had been made, they held authority and were largely respected. Absent at these meetings, however, were the gang thugs running the weed trade, and the increasing amount of heroin junkies who had taken refuge in one of the fringe buildings (they were eventually driven out).
Christiania built its own day care institution to take care of all the kids growing up in the area. One former Christiania kid, now about to be appointed ambassador, has said he learned negotiation technique by negotiating weed on Christiania in his youth.
Self-built dwelling in the northern part of Christiania. Photo: Christiania.org
So, can we accept an illegal venture like this, which has taken away space owned by the democratic state? Should we applaud it, for boosting culture and helping minorities? It's a question whose side you're on in the space war. “Space war” sounds like something that involves Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and happens in a galaxy far, far away. It is also the academic term for what is happening right now in Copenhagen, as Christiania is once again caught in uncertainty about its future. Christiania is more than an alternative space. There are other 'alternative' areas in Copenhagen, in which the political status quo is opposed. Those areas, however, exist in the middle of the established order, at the mercy of the government and the market, and even lend credence to these institutions by offering ordered opposition, validating the democratic system that produces an alien set of values. Christiania is more controversial and internationally remarkable because it has canceled the social contract that offers protection and democratic influence in exchange for obedience to the system's rules. The open and public weed market at Christiania has become a symbol of the fact that the normal rules don't apply here. The bi-yearly police razzias are the system's way of reminding everyone that even though it allows Christiania to remain, it has not given its blueprint.
Space has become a valuable commodity. Real-estate dealers could make fortunes from Christiania. Placed in a historical area, surrounded by water and very centrally situated, it could house some of the most expensive dwellings in the entire country. The fact that such an area is covered with portable cabins, self-built wooden houses and dilapidated brick structures once again emphasizes the fact that the normal economic laws of gravity have no power here. This space is different from the surrounding space. The Christianites have de-commoditized it. They are not using it to make money. They have also introduced a new relationship between the physical city and its inhabitants. Where most Copenhageners live in a series of buildings and areas fashioned by city planners or by unknown historical processes, the Christianites have built their own houses, and even the public facilities of Christiania have been shaped by the community of the inhabitants. Christiania has conquered this space and given it to a different way of living. In the late 1970s, when the government had given up driving the Christianites out of Christiania, they decided to accept its existence as a temporary “social experiment”.
When the wall to the barracks was broken down and another, more abstract border was established been Christiania and Denmark (emphasized by the backside of the entry sign which states: “You are now entering the EU”), some truths were revealed about the surrounding city. The immediate mass emigration and the continuing popularity of Christiania, especially among minorities and subculturals, speak about a hunger, formerly unsatiated, for other ways of living. It tells us just how homogenic the surrounding city is. While the space produced by the Danish system has always allowed everyone to live and walk freely, Christiania showed that it has not provided everyone with the opportunity to live as they truly wished. Christiania thrives, even today, because it is so different. It has become the third biggest tourist attraction in Denmark, thereby paradoxically generating income for the state.
While inferior in terms of infrastructure, sanitation, ground exploitation and economic activity, Christiania is vastly superior in some other areas which have lately become important to politicians and planners of the establishment: local engagement and city life. It was first demonstrated by journalist and writer Jane Jacobs in 1961 how city life (pedestrian interaction and activity on street level) generates safety and economic growth. Since then, it has gradually become much sought after among planners and developers. Local engagement facilitates city life and reduces crime, and is also often attempted synthesized by planning authorities. Christiania is a study in these things. Because of this, a new discourse has evolved in the political establishment: “learning from Christiania”. What if the so-called social experiment has shown us that the surrounding city could be improved by using some of the ideas from Christiania? This is certainly the case if you believe it's important that inhabitants of a city can shape their own area, rather than occupy an area shaped by higher mechanisms such as the market or a political ideology. This view is gaining some ground in the wake of the climate emergency and the economic crisis, but it is also threatened by the predominant “growth” discourse, hailing economic growth as the end goal of all political action, forgetting individual freedom and equating the well-being of the population with the well-being of the national economy. It's a question who has the right to the city: the landowners, the inhabitants, or both.
Over time, Christiania has become a divisive political issue. The far left embraces it, as a miraculous manifestation of a way of life they hardly dare to dream about anymore. The center left, being part of the establishment, have adopted a “see no evil” policy, continually postponing decisions about Christiania and quietly accepting its existence. The right, however, is still firmly against it. They stress the unfairness of Christiania having seized the land from its rightful state ownership and keeping the area out of the free market, inhabiting it at an exceptionally low rent. This is true from the point of view that the democratic-capitalistic system is itself inherently fair. Political disagreement means that Christiania dwells in constant uncertainty, with shifting governments taking different stands. Furthermore, there is a cleft between the politics of the Copenhagen municipal government, which is very left-leaning, and the national government, which has been moving consistently to the right for many years.
Political theatre, mediating current events through performance and satire, has always flourished at Christiania. The big storage building known as Den Grå Hal serves as a venue for this and many other kinds of larger-scale productions. Photo: Christiania.org
With nice old British ladies arriving in tourist buses to see the amazing free town, and with thousands upon thousands of Copenhageners from all walks of life coming to Christiania each week for concerts at Den Grå Hal, martial arts classes, skating contests or shows by visiting Bulgarian acrobats, or simply to hang out by the lake or have a beer at Loppen or Nemoland, the idea of clearing Christiania and bulldozing the buildings is off the table. The political threat to Christiania has now taken the form of the softer sounding “normalization”. In terms of the space war: invasion has been called off, but subordination through coercion is still the plan. Christiania must submit to the rules of the surrounding city, thereby becoming like the other alternative parts of Copenhagen: accepted, organized opposition. Christiania has accepted some normalisation (bars and restaurants, for example, now pay sales taxes and undergo scrutiny of the authorities), but denied others. In 2011, the government made an offer to Christiania inviting them to buy most of the area for 85 million DKK (~12 million EUR). Christiania accepted this offer and began selling “shares”, hoping that over 400,000 people (roughly 7% of the Danish population) would step up to pay 200 DKK to free the freetown. This is not likely to happen. So, when the right wing comes to power again, further normalisation negotations will proceed. But as one seasoned Christianite puts it: “The government is grinding us down slowly. They realise that using bulldozers is not a good idea. Bureaucrats are good though: they work! - and suddenly it becomes a ‘nice’ area, and damn boring. I can't stand niceness!”
Another threat looming in the beautiful sunset between the home-built houses on the old embankments is stagnation. The original founders have grown old after 42 years. The 70s have gone, and the question is: are there people enough, in the 2010s, willing to carry on the Christiania dream, with the same energy and faith as in the 1970s? And the next question: are the heirs of Christiania willing, not to normalise, but to adapt? The flow of tourists already makes the freetown look a little like a museum, and if the new inhabitants insist on doing things exactly the same way as in the 70s, Christiania is in danger of becoming a “hippie museum”.
There are striking similiarities between Christiania and the romanticist movement. Both movements highlighted the individual in favour of larger systems. They contained no desire to change other people's ways, only the dream of making the space to develop fully and freely as human beings. But romanticism, unable to rely on rigid structures, has great difficulty standing the test of time. It is based on the desires of human beings, which may fade overnight, just like the portable cabins at Christiania could be removed overnight and the freely growing plants and trees seem poised to swallow the area back into mother nature.