“You are now leaving the European Union,” reads a sign that marks the entrance to Christiania, an antonymous ‘free town’ inside Copenhagen within a former military barracks, symbolically protected by historic defensive city walls strewn with colourful graffiti.
The 84-acre urban utopia within the Danish capital — a city often hailed as one of the world’s most liveable — came to be in 1971 when a gaggle of rebels and outsiders called sqautters’ rights in the disused army base during a period of poor living conditions in the Scandinavian nation. “There was a bit of East Village to it all, but the attitude was more determined,” writes Tom Freston for Vanity Fair of his first visit in 1972. “Thousands of young Danes — artists, feminists, hippies, anarchists — were turning their back on straight society and had actually conquered town, were holding it, and were living there for free beyond the law.”
In 1973, the commune was bestowed a temporary official status of ‘social experiment’ by the social democratic government of the time, and the following decade parliament passed the Christiania Law that recognised the community as a legal enclave. July 2012 saw the establishment of the Foundation Freetown Christiania after the government offered to sell the land to the residents at well below market price, along with promises of guaranteed loans, so that the residents could own their space as a collective in keeping with their shared socialist philosophies. It is by no means a directionless den. Now a major tourist attraction, the commune, home to around 900, attracts a million visitors per year.
There are no cars in Christiania. The former barracks, along with a smattering of new structures, have been converted into bars, vegan cafes, stores, a museum, cinema, concert hall, and skateboard park. There’s even a recording studio in a converted shipping container. Some homes have satellite dishes. There are community social services, health centres, waste collection, recycling and kindergartens. Among its most popular sights — going by Instagram images, at least — is the art gallery adorned with rainbows. Citizens often experiment with sustainable building methods, water-treatment systems and solar energy to keep their carbon footprints to a minimum. The free town flies its own flag and trades with its own currency. The enclave is practically self-governing, its common mantras being no fighting, no weapons, no theft, and no hard drugs (we’ll come to cannabis later).
Writing in Vogue of her trip there earlier this year, Brooke Bobb comments upon a “raggedy shack filled with piles of clothes… There were ripped jeans, seemingly new crop tops and skirts, a few sneakers and lots of tees”. A resident informed the writer that it’s a place for folks to collect free items left by visitors. “It occurred to me that the sartorial sharing company is a way for outsider to better understand the way Christiania operates,” notes Bobb, “even if the residents aren’t totally aware of the role their clothing plays in showcasing the ideal of their unique community.”
Forty years after his first sojourn, Freston headed back to see what had become of Christiania to discover that it “had grown up to be a cool, verdant little village in a corner of Copenhagen”. Freston had, he added, underestimated the “work ethic” and the “diligence of the Danes”.
While pot is illegal in Denmark, it has been traded relatively freely on the streets of the free town — the ‘green light district’ of Pusher Street, to be precise — practically since its inception, sold from rudimentary hash stalls. With authorities turning a blind-eye, the business burgeoned to the tune of an estimated $200 million per year and, inevitably, the peaceful hippy traders were soon pushed out by — or coerced to work for — Hells Angels-types and ‘skinheads with pit bulls’. A criminal element, lured by the promise of easy ‘green’ dollars, infiltrated Christiania like a cancer, culminating in a shoot-out on 31 August 2016. A cop and two others were hit. The gunman, a 25-year-old dealer, was later killed by the police.
“This was something most of us knew could happen,” community spokesperson Risenga Manghezi told the Guardian at the time. “It’s not the first time somebody’s been shot in Christiania. But I’ve always thought the day a police officer gets shot, that’s the day things will get really bad.”
Pusher Street was shut down. A meeting was called and more than half the adult population effectively declared war on their drug-dealing overlords, taking axes and crowbars and sledgehammers and bulldozers to their stalls. Hashish was still offered in hushed, whispered tones, but was discouraged by residents who went as far as to proclaim by way of flyers and posters urging visitors to help their commune by scoring their draw elsewhere. They were to take back control of their free town.
With some of the residents of Christiania third-generation, it is thought to be the longest-running and most successful commune the modern world has known. “Even as they repair from what happened last year,” notes Bobb, “the citizens of Christiania, both young and old, are dedicated to promoting the spirit of togetherness. They do it through an alternative lifestyle, their creativity, and their self-expressive way of dressing.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces