- -  Day # 348  + +

EU > Denmark > Copenhagen

Reporting from Christiania

Copenhagen, DK (View on map)

So Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country in Europe? Inhabitants of Christiania, a community living on a deserted army terrain south of Copenhagen`s city centre, have less flattering opinions about the Danish society. They hold their fellow Danes for selfish, uncaring and indifferent. Christiania is a self-declared autonomous part of Copenhagen, inhabited by roughly 1000 people and visited by many more than that every day. Danish law has been suspended, which means that Christiania is the only place in Denmark where marihuana and hash are freely available. Here`s a quick glance behind the scenes of Christiania:

Ane (25):

`I would have a hard time getting used to normal Danish society after having lived here for the last 2.5 years`
The story of Christiania started in 1971. Renting prices of real estate in Copenhagen were skyrocketing, which allowed landlords not to take care of their property and still make money out of it. Many apartments remained empty, waiting to be sold with big profits ? regardless of the lack of affordable living space which was only reinforced by this practice. Squatters took over the area, also occupying a former military terrain just South of Copenhagen.

While the occupation of owned houses was soon declared illegal, the government did not manage to force the occupants of the military terrain out of the area: the squatters got away with their occupation for a short while. Christiania even won a qualification as `social experiment` but that status was withdrawn after a government change later in the 1970s. Legal struggles followed, and they have been unresolved up until today. Touching Christiana means touching its inhabitants but also its many sympathisers across Denmark. All the Danish state can do is aim to `normalise` the situation in Christiania, but none of the attempts undertaken so far has proved successful.

Christiania also faced problems from within. It had a hard time banning heroine and speed from its terrain in the late 1970s, had problems with motor gangs who hid in Christiania to protect itself from a rivalling organisation. Those problems have all been solved by the democratic governing bodies of Christiania.

Originally starting out as an anarchist community, Christiania soon found itself in need of organised structures. The current governance involves every adult inhabitant of Christiania. Decisions are taken by majority, but not with consent of the minority. Christiania does not have one manager, president or king. Everybody is supposed to participate on an equal basis, whether they are shop owners, marihuana dealers or just ordinary residents. Inhabitants of Christiania pay income taxes to the Danish state, they pay for electricity, water, waste collection and poll-tax.

Values of Christiania
Christiania sees itself as a free haven for those who do not want to conform themselves with the rigid Danish society. The community mainly consists of creative people with a leftish political preference. Ane (25, photo) has been living and working in Christiania for the last 2.5 years: `It`s quite hard to get in. There is only limited space and there are many people who would like to live here. I got here at one point in winter and asked whether I could live in a hut somewhere at the East of the terrain. I was allowed to stay there for half a year and then had the luck that somebody moved houses. I was then allowed to take theirs.`

Ane continues: `Christiania is a great place to live. I would have a hard time moving back to `normal` society again. People in Christiania all know each other. They may not always like each other, but they know each other. Whenever I visit friends outside Christiania, I am always surprised that they don`t know anything about the people living next door to them. They don`t greet each other like we do. They don`t care about each other like we do. An important part of why Christiania is such a nice place to live is that the people who live here deliberately chose to live here. I guess they are more conscious and a lot more motivated than people in the rest of Denmark. The fact that the state doesn`t want us here gives an additional sense of unity. Keeping our autonomous status requires a lot of effort of all of us.`

`Christiania itself is considered un-political, but most of the inhabitants would find themselves on the left side of the political spectrum: Pro-social values and contra-capitalism. We are also against authority, which explains why we have no bosses: not in our shops, not in our workshops and not for Christiania as a whole. Everything is agreed upon by compromise.`

Public opinion
Christiania is the third biggest tourist attraction of Copenhagen, only after the Little Mermaid and fun park Tivoli. The open sale of marihuana and hash in `Pusher street` (photos not allowed!) draw tourists from all over the world, while the many concerts and artistic workshops also attract many visitors. Police crew also visit Christiania regularly. They will do nothing against the trading in soft drugs, but they do keep an eye out on potential criminal activity that revolves around Pusher Street. Police is also keen to body-search visitors of Christiania on their way out. Marihuana and hash are not tolerated anywhere outside Christiania, so people taking it home can expect a fine as well as expropriation of their `stuff`.

Troels (24) and Ann (21) regularly find themselves walking around the streets of Christiania. Troels says: `It`s a pleasant area, full of green and lots of friendly people around. The reason I`m visiting this time is to fetch my bike which has been repaired by the local Christiania bike shop. It`s cheaper than in Copenhagen, and the people are lots friendlier.` Ann says: `We are both from Jutland, where people are not very familiar with the existence of Christiania. If it ever appears on the news, it`s images of Pusher Street combined with words about anarchy and lawfulness. Opinions about Christiania are endlessly divided. Danish press and the Danish state are very negative. At the same time, Danish primary schools from all over the country take their pupils here to teach them about alternative ways of living.`

Troels thinks that Christiania will have trouble maintaining its autonomy in the future. `The area is much wanted by project developers. They want to create a new city neighbourhood here and their financial pressure is huge. People from Christiania need to be careful about what they do. Anything that goes wrong in Christiania can be used as a political argument to close the place down. They greatly rely on sympathy across the country. If they lose that sympathy, they don`t stand a chance against the project developers and the state. No wonder they are so united. It`s their only chance of survival.`

Danes visiting
Joachim (25) and Mathias (24) are visiting Christiania just for the fun of it. `There are some good restaurants on the terrain and it`s simply a pleasant place to be. There are no cars, or just very few. It`s like walking around in a park: a very suitable and relaxing activity for a warm summer day`, Joachim says. Mathias likes the Christiania concept, but he is not sure whether he could live there: `It all depends on the area. It`s surprising how much some parts of Christiania are different from others. I couldn`t live anywhere near Pusher Street. Too much noise and too much fuss. I am still puzzled at how the pushers and the other people in Christiania can make agreed decisions. It seems to me like they are leading completely different lives and have completely opposite interests.`

Sine (35) pays regular visits to Christiania because of the many concerts that are organised on its terrain. `Many people from Copenhagen know this place and like it. But there`s also a fair deal of people who has never been here and probably doesn`t even dare to visit. Still, Christiania is safer than the rest of Copenhagen is.` Danish Soenine (19) has spent most of her teenage years outside of Denmark, `but when I`m here, I usually pay a couple of visits before I leave the country again. Christiania is a pleasant place with sociable people.`

Bo (28) is a musician from Copenhagen who has been on tours around Europe and across the oceans. He goes to Christiania every now and then to light a joint. `But it`s the atmosphere that gets me here. In Copenhagen, you can sit next to anybody and you would almost for sure not talk to that person. In Christiania, everybody can talk to each other and they often will. It`s so much more of a social place than the puppet house of Copenhagen where everybody looks the same, the streets are pretty, but there are no ideas.`

Bo sometimes exports marihuana beyond the `You are now entering the EU` sign that marks the end of Christiania. `It`s a bit of a game, or call it a bet. I know I can get caught for it. If I do, I will pay the fine and hand in my stuff. I guess the police is doing there job and I know what I risk. Still, I think it would be a good idea if soft drugs got decriminalised all over Denmark. Look at what happened in The Netherlands: when they legalised soft drugs and started a program of methadon provision to junkies, crime rates dropped by 40%. I don`t support the use of hard drugs, but how much more harm does a joint to compared to a beer. Alcohol kills your brain cells. Marihuana only numbs them a bit. Alcohol makes people aggressive. Marihuana doesn`t.`

International visitors
Philippe (18) from Versailles, France, came to Christiania just to have a look what`s going on. In a typical French way, he explains: `It looks interesting, reste ? verifier ce que ca donne finalement`, which translates into `I am wondering what sticks behind the initial image to the outside world.` Jean Thomas (24) and Antoine (27), also from France, reply in pretty much the same way. `The concept is interesting. If it has existed for 30 years, it must work in a way`, Antoine says. Jean Thomas explains that few French people have heard of Christiania. `I once saw a documentary about it on TV. It focused on the alternative way of living, environmentally conscious, creative and all. The program conveyed quite a positive image of Christiania. I would say that the `fa?ade` looks alright. We are now here to check out the reality.`

Helen (29) from the UK is visiting with a Danish friend. `I was here for the first time some 5/6 years ago and found it a great place. We don`t have places like this in the UK. Maybe some fields where alternative people put up their tents. They will be thought of as gipsies and will probably have to move on soon after they settle down. Then, there`s Camden in London, which is quite a creative community, although it`s much more tourist-style and less authentic than Christiania is.

Rick (25) from Canada works in Copenhagen as a riksha-driver. `I have been living in Copenhagen for the last 2.5 months. I regularly transport people to and from Christiania. Those who leave are usually pretty quiet and relaxed. I have not had any problems with them. I also visit frequently myself. It`s a nice place to hang out.`

Joris (34) and Tommie (21) came along on an exchange program between Christiania and a similar Dutch community called `Ruigoord`, just outside Amsterdam. The Dutch community and their sympathisers have put up a campsite on Christiania terrain, just behind the entrance port. The Dutch will stay around for two weeks.

Both Dutch guys is impressed by how hard working the Christiania people are: `They have a very strict organisation and a lot of initiative to get things done. Christiania is much bigger than Ruigoord is and it looks a more professional and institutional. They have to be really well organised to keep their autonomy. Christiania is under a permanent threat to be closed or diminished in size.`

Joris explains: `The Christianians are quite smart in their resistance and they are very good at using public opinion in their favour. As a result of another legal threat to their existence, some sympathisers have started to build huts in the terrain around Christiania, even on water and on the shores. For them, that`s an easy thing to do. For the government or city council, it means that they need to make different departments ? water management, social department, spatial affairs etc. - work together and they are quite bad at that. It`s all a matter of winning time and taking advantage of the overcomplicated structures of the Danish government. I think communities like Christiania are only natural reactions to the indifference that is so common modern societies. Closing the place down would be a big mistake.`

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