Christiania is a free town/autonomous zone inside the borders of Copenhagen, Denmark. It was an abandoned military base; in 1969, some people broke through the fence and started squatting, with the intention of creating a free society. After many fights with the police, the zone was granted a special status in the danish system and the village was allowed to exist. The original people were a combination of student activists, drug pushers and hippies. They declared Christiania a "free zone" which determines its own rules and laws. One of the exit arches reads "you are now entering the EU."
Christiania is home to about 650 adults and 300 children. There are an incredible number of shops and businesses, as well as services run by Christianites. These include: garbage pickup, small grocery stores, a bath house, an indoor skateboard park, a large recycled building materials shop, several art galleries, one of Copenhagen's fanciest restaurants (which includes a row of tables specially reserved for Christianites and a special, cheaper menu for them), a women's iron forge, a shop that refurbishes old stoves, a kindergarten, and many others. One of the things Christiania is most famous for are their bikes. They developed a kind of tricycle with the parallel wheels in front, supporting a large carrying container (pics below.)
They are consensus based (again, disproving the claim that consensus doesn't work in large groups.) The area is divided into about a dozen sub-sections that themselves have autonomy over certain decisions like who gets to move into vacated residences. There is also a large theater that is used for meetings of the entire community. The Christianites are responsible for maintaining everything, the buildings, the utlities, the roads, etc. They pay the government each month for the water and electricity used by the entire community. Everyone pays 2000 kroners (about $300) to live in Christiania, no matter whether you live in a flat in one of the large buildings or a old circus wagon, which covers utilities and the various public services.
Our first visit was on a rainy sunday afternoon. Our host, a former member of Christiania, took us for a visit at his girlfriends house, in Christiania, for some coffee and apple cake. Her house is right on the waterway that runs through Christiania, where houses are technically "illegal." .Some houses in Christiania have been built from the ground up, but most are the original military buildings that have been (illegally) expanded and added to. Ironically, the government is barred from knocking down the old military portion of those buildings deemed illegal because of historical preservation laws. When you look at a house sometimes you can just barely make out the old brick box that was the original military shelter amidst a creative and expansive construction (pics below.)
As a free town, Christiania was still organized around certain firm boundaries. Christiania's Common Law states, "Christiania's commitment is to create and sustain a self-governing community, in which everyone is free to develop and express their selves, as responsible members of the community." Their prohibitions are "no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no biker's colours, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of thunderflashes, no stolen goods." Interesting mix, eh?
Twin Oaks blurs the line between community (in the contemporary understanding) and society. Usually, it seems, communities have a sense of purpose. Twin Oaks has some of this, but mostly it's purpose is to perpetuate itself. In this way it is like a society. Christiania pushes this even further, partly because it is so much bigger, but also because it is so much more diverse. The various demographics: the pushers and users, the activists, the hippies, the families, all have more room to develop sub-cultures. This makes decision-making that much more challenging. Being a model, being something "uniquely danish" as the Christiania guide states, is certainly important to many people. Being a safe haven for (soft) drug use is vital to many others. "Pusher street" once had as many as 50 stands openly selling hash and marijuana, the other thing Christiania is perhaps most famous for. Various crackdowns have eliminated the open market, but at its height, Christiania was the center of the european pot trade, with about $1 million passing through the community every day. The vibrancy of the arts, music, and performance culture is the focus for others.
The incredible freedom and beauty that comes from autonomy and freedom of expression possible in Christiania is palpable and tangible as one walks through the community. There are sculptures, beautiful graffiti murals, mosaics and paintings everywhere you look. And the feeling of an entire village that has been created outside of the usual of public space stratas (private, residential or public, commercial) is very special. It feels vibrant, alive, and rich. Its a bit like walking around a rainbow gathering or maybe burning man, where you are surrounded by unchecked creative expression. Music pours out of the various venues, clumps of people gather in the streets, and the air vibrates with energy. And given that this was once a military instillation, the transformation seems even more profound. The diversity of experience is striking, where, for example, the stairwell to the fancy restaurant is completely covered in graffiti, top to bottom. Also striking was walking from Christiania's slightly hectic urban center to the peaceful and serene waterfront residential areas, where it was not hard to imagine being out in a rural commune. "Christiania has many faces," one member said to us.
One way this has come up recently is in the struggles with the danish government. The history of Christiania has been marked by conflict. Even so, like SWOMP in Amsterdam the idea of this kind of thing existing in Washington DC is beyond comprehension. Over the years, changes in the government have brought a more hostile attitude towards the free town, especially towards the open drug market. Things have been especially tense over the last 5 years since a strongly right-wing government came into power with a clear intention to "normalize" Christiania. Christiania persists, although, of course, things have changed. The pressure has clearly taken a toll on the community. Arts and culture seem to be at a low point, and although the drug market is still underground, the substance use culture seems to dominate. A certain tension and depravity seemed to hang over the "downtown" of Christinia, where pusher street is the main drag. The fact that at most times there are more men than women on the street was an obvious symptom of this for us.
Our second visit highlighted the struggles of the free town, both internally and with the government. Christianites have been in a complex negotiating process in court with the Danish government about their legal status. Whenever the negotiations break-down, the police come in and knock down a few of the "illegal" houses. We arrived in the late morning on such a day. Negotiations had been stalled since the spring, and the police had come in the morning and knocked down the "illegal" part of one of the houses next to the river. Well into the afternoon, fully-geared cops roamed around and the streets were full of small clusters of people, tense and agitated, often shouting insults at the police. A protest was being planned, and most businesses had closed their doors. On one street, people spray-painted giant banners for the action. Many people were drinking or drunk, and an increasing number of the Christiania supporters arriving on the scene were young and black clad or older and staggering. One man that we talked to said years ago, Christiania was a haven for arts, performance, and other expressions of creativity; we agreed that this was hard to see today. Another person told us, "there's going to be a fight." As if to highlight this about 10 minutes later someone in Christiania shot a flare over a circling police helicopter. Around that time about 700 - 1000 people marched from the Christiansborg Palace to Christiania, marking the beginning of the day's active conflict.
Witnessing all this, what was clear was that only a small percentage of the protesters were members of Christiania. The people on the Christiania streets, and marching through the center of the city, were mostly young, black-clad, dreaded and pierced anarchists. Christiania's numerous children, famlies, and elderly members were noticably absent from the protests. For many people, it seemed like what was happening was a convenient excuse to fight with the police.
We returned that evening to a diabolic scene. People had been protesting in the streets all afternoon, and now the show-down was focused in front of Christiania. Traffic down the main street that runs along Christiania was blocked off by police vans and cops in full riot gear. A huge bonfire burned in the intersection near the Christiania main entrance. We snuck around back and ran into a bank of tear gas, then circled back to the front beyond the cop barricade but still a couple of blocks from the entrance. Other people were gathered in this area, talking and taking pictures. There were several large media vans with numerous reporters, photographers and filmers on the scene. Occassionally a battalion of police vans would tear down a parallel street and come at the throng of protestors from one of the other sides of the intersection. We'd see people run down the street to meet the police, throwing bottles and rocks, only to run back to the bonfire a minute later followed by a cloud of tear gas. Eventually about 8 vans and several dozen riot police converged on the intersection and cleared the demonstration, pushing the conflict down side streets and into the edges of Christiania itself.
The next morning, the smell of tear gas lingered at the entrance, and a large piece of pavement had melted from the bonfire. Various people on the Christiania streets swept up broken glass and other debris, but these were the only remnants of the previous nights madness. Inside, things had returned to normal; shops were open and people lingered in the streets. We took a long walk around the canal past all the different small neighborhoods and isolated dwellings, all cute and/or funky to the extreme. We walked through the idealic courtyards and gardens of the old V shaped military installations - perfect for community. We met an artist who had just returned from painting in NYC, who very warmly invited us and welcomed us to look around. We passed by the house that had been partially knocked down the day before; the cops had removed the "illegal" additions to the original military building; and people were already busy rebuilding it. When we mentioned this to our host he expressed a certain cynicism about this, that there was no way the Christianites could keep that up over the long term if the police persist. Still, it was a powerful image of community and freedom.
Sky's theory is that it is likely that the demolishing efforts are a calculated effort to divide Christiania and tarnish the community's reputation in the city, or at least to light a fire under the Christianites to keep the negotiations moving. If the government actually wanted to demolish the the illegal buildings, it seems unlikely that they would send in a single crew with a small police escort to take down one house. But even if this is not the intent it is certainly the effect. Several people told us that traffic had been at a standstill in several parts of the city center because of the conflict. A housemate of our host told us that on the bus people were wondering why things were stalled. She told them there were conflicts around Christiania, which elicited disparaging remarks towards the Christianites. This is ironic given that the number of Christianites in the conflict was probably quite small.
Our host's girlfriend told us that she came home from work not realizing what was going on. As she rode her bike towards the entrance she hit a cloud of tear gas and had to stop. Several of the protestors came over to her, and when she explained that she lived there and was just trying to get home they helped her through the scene. The latest issue of the Christiania newspaper published the most recent court document the lawyers for the community had prepared. The day after the confrtontation a community meeting was to be held to talk about what to do. Our host and his girlfriend confirmed that the community is divided over the issue of strategy.
When asked if the government will be successful in its effort to reintegrate Christiania into the normal functioning of municiple operations and housing market, both our host and a few members said no, but there will be changes. Changes had already started. The shift in culture for one, as well as an acquiescence of the part of Christiania businesses to operate fully under Copenhagen business rules. Also, the winds of politics may be changing. The right-wing government is increasingly unpopular, and will likely become more so given their handling of the recent global financial upheavels (most notably in their decision to cut subsidies for housing development at the same time that banks are less able to make loans, which will likely mean a severe rise in unemployment.)
Whatever happens, the future of Christiania is likely to continue to be colorful and dramatic.