Denmark's hippie haven faces shutdown
Christiania has flown its own flag for decades now, but the Danish
government and real estate interests say, Enough!
By Patti McCracken
February 17, 2009
The whole thing started with a hole in a fence around an abandoned
military barracks in central Copenhagen.
Parents in the neighborhood tugged at the hole to widen it. Soon it
was big enough for their little kids to scramble through to play in
the grassy open spaces within.
Not long after, squatters cut a large patch out of the fence and
commandeered the whole barracks for their own use. They named the
area "Christiania," stuck out a flag, and declared themselves free
from the rule of Danish law. Nearly four decades later, the flag is
This derelict army depot's run as a makeshift playground was short.
But it has had a long and often troubled run as a refuge for
Copenhagen's fringe society. And now the Danish government, which has
been listing right in recent years, has given up on clemency for the
collective. It appears determined to finally dissolve the
self-governing community of nearly 1,000 in what it calls "normalization."
But Christiania took a preemptive strike late last year and filed a
couple of lawsuits, which are now being heard by Denmark's Eastern
High Court. Decisions are expected at the end of this month.
The first suit cites as precedent a 1973 agreement that briefly
allowed the commune to exist as a "social experiment." The second is,
in essence, a class-action suit filed by the residents, claiming a
right to live on the site without eviction, because they have now
possessed it into the third generation.
In October, police evicted residents from a house on the rim of the
commune, setting off a six-hour showdown.
Christianites lobbed beer bottles and Molotov cocktails at police,
and were answered with sprays of tear gas. Danes caution that if the
court rules against Christiania in either case, more widespread
rioting is a given.
The situation is more farce than tragedy, but Denmark is once again
the stage for a pondering first posed 400 years ago by Hamlet: To be
or not to be.
For Danes, the question is a fiery one, igniting on one side deeply
held principles about freedom, nonconformity, and tolerance. A great
number of Danes look to Christiania as the alter ego of the nation,
and its right to exist is robustly defended. "In Denmark, everything
is occupied and controlled. There's not much space left in the
cities, but Christiania is a kind of asylum. People feel more freer
there than in the rest of the society," says Rene Elley Karpantschof,
a sociologist at the University of Copenhagen. But those opposed are
fed up with the deeply rooted drug use, the land occupation, and the
snubbing of laws. "It has been made a haven for criminals from
neighboring countries, like Sweden or Norway," says Jesper Nielsen, a
cultural historian at Denmark's National Museum. "So you could say
they accept a criminal form of control within Christiania, but they
resist control from without."
Christiania, which takes its name from the Christhavn district in
which it sits, began as a protest against the lack of affordable
housing. The far left grandly championed the squatters. "Christiania
is the land of settlers. It is so far the biggest opportunity to
build up a society from scratch," wrote well-known counterculture
activist and journalist Jacob Ludvigsen as the squatters set up.
Dilapidated army barracks were transformed into houses, and
warehouses were outfitted with printing presses. Kindergartens were
created, more houses built, stores and clinics opened, and a local
post office was opened. No one paid utilities, rent, or taxes. Money
was doled out equally, and smoking hash was as common as blinking.
The "Freetown of Christiania" designed its own postage stamp, its own
constitution, and its own flag. It had its own currency. It was known
for its freewheeling lifestyle and funky, brightly painted houses.
Eventually, Christiania agreed to pay for utilities and a nominal tax
per house. But the area, centrally located and with a pristine
waterfront, has long been eyed by developers.
"When I first came here, I was Red. I was for a revolution," says
Hjordis Oppedal, an artist who moved to Christiania in 1976 and
maintains a studio there. "At first I didn't like the drug users
here, the addicts. But I realized all people have rights and I
learned to keep an open mind." Yet the hard drug use spiraled out of
control, and an underworld of dealers swooped in to tap the growing
market. What began as an anticapitalist utopia became a battleground
of drug lords fighting for real estate. Police began regular raids on
the drug-laden kiosks along Pusher Street, the commune's main street.
Concerned that history was about to be swept away, the National
Museum snatched up one of the infamous kiosks and put it on permanent
display. Residents say the days of hard drugs are over, but they keep
a lid on exposure and strictly forbid photos and videos. As one young
Christianite mother, holding the hand of her blond toddler, explained
recently, "There are drugs here, and we don't want the police coming
around." The stalls remain, but police still sweep through. "Many
people are ready to fight for Christiania," says Dr. Karpantschof.
"If the state wants to continue to try to destroy it bit by bit,
there will be a whole lot of unrest."
But the flag of tolerance doesn't wave freely. Living space is at a
premium inside the commune, so it is officially closed to new
residents. Tolerance is relative and random within the Freetown of
Christiania. Musician and artist Denis Agerblad was invited to take
over the downstairs of a house for use as a studio. But soon he found
he had to contend with three teenage squatters.
"It just happened one day that we had people pushing on the other
side of the door, trying to get in," says Mr. Agerblad. "They were
actually drilling and eventually got in. As far as I know, they're
still living there." Parents in Christiana "will do anything" to get
living space there for their grown children, he adds.
Christiania was born under a hopeful light at a time when Denmark was
darkened by social problems. The commune held out the ideal that
there was the possibility of another possibility. But its revolution
is complete. Today's Denmark is among the wealthiest, safest, most
liberal, most socially articulate of nations. Two recent surveys have
ranked Danes as the happiest people in the world (one by
Stockholm-based World Values Survey, another by University of
Leicester in England). The nation's evolution leaves the Freetown of
Christiania chained to the past. A museum piece.
Police crackdown pushes drug deals into public eye
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
With the closing of Christiania's open-air drug market, dealers have
moved out into the city, and often into plain sight
Drug dealing in Copenhagen has become much more visible since
Copenhagen police closed down the open-air drug market at Christiania
in 2004, according to police.
Since the market – known primarily for selling hashish and other
cannabis products – was closed, police have made a concerted effort
stamp out drug dealing entirely in the squatter colony. They now
maintain a regular presence on the former 'Pusher Street' and
frequently conduct searches and make arrests.
But instead of ending the drug trade, dealers have been spread
throughout the city and now openly make deals in busy areas such as
Israel Plads Square in the downtown area, Lituaens Plads Square in
the Vesterbro district and Jægersborggade Street in the Nørrebro district.
'It's true that drug dealing has become more visible and in turn more
unpleasant for residents who can now see the sales taking place,'
said Copenhagen Police Chief Hanne Bech Hansen.
Many also believe the Christiania raids have also changed hash's
image from a part of Christiania's hippie culture to being at the
centre of recent gang violence.
'The gang war is about securing the income that result from the hash
sales,' said Michael Hviid Jacobsen, a sociologist at Aalborg
Unniversity. 'Many of the immigrant gangs are a direct result of the
decision to clean up Pusher Street because it opened the possibility
of getting into the hash market.'
Hansen said that while some drug dealers sprouted up in the wake of
the Christiania raids, the gang war has several causes.
'It's a complicated conflict that's partly about drugs but also about
power, women and revenge.'