Christiania: A Hippy Vision Endures
One of the more historically notorious attractions in free-wheeling, progressive Copenhagen, Denmark is an ongoing “social experiment” called Christiania, a small section of the city that a bunch of art students and hippies more or less conquered and settled in 1971. The original “settlers” broke into a walled-off, abandoned military barracks, christened the main portion of the property “Freetown” and started squatting there with the intent of developing a communally run, self-governing, free society. Despite repeated threats from the government to clear the area, Christiania is still around 33 years later and has been successful in developing an impressively organized community that is home to more that 1,000 permanent residents.
During their tenure on the site, the Christianites have constructed numerous housing and communal structures as well as repaired and refurbished the derelict buildings original to the military barracks. They have also succeeded in their efforts to develop a basic, yet adequate infrastructure – minus electricity and water, which is provided by the city – allowing them to be a virtually self-sustaining community. In addition to several shops and factories they have a communal bath house (remember, these are hippies and artists), nursery, kindergarten, waste removal, various markets, radio station, newspaper, post office and a recycling program.
The Christianites uninvited seizure and colonization of government owned property did not go unnoticed for long and has subsequently caused continual strife with the Danish Parliament. However, the main source of Christiania’s PR problems and negative notoriety is almost entirely rooted in the free-for-all, open sale of soft drugs. There is little subtlety in the way business is conducted on Christiania’s “Pusher Street” where rickety shacks, folding tables and wooden benches are tightly lined up on both sides of the street for about 100 yards, selling a dizzying assortment of hash and hash related paraphernalia. Many vendors have huge samples of hash laying right out in the open with price tags dutifully attached to all of their products, like you’d expect to see in a butcher shop display window. Soft drugs are unquestionably forbidden in Denmark, so how the Christianites started this endeavor or why it has survived to this day is a mystery. Over the years, the Danish police have made harsh and sometimes violent attempts to raid Pusher Street and shut it down, but inevitably days or even hours later the dealers are back in business with a full inventory like it never happened. For the time being, it appears that Danish authorities have simply thrown up their arms and retreated in defeat.
While a stroll down Pusher Street can be surreal and oddly entertaining, the dozens of people sitting, standing and sporadically sprawled out on the ground in a variety of altered states is slightly less amusing. Although it appears that the brunt of the hash fatalities on Pusher Street are not Christiania residents, but in fact tourists out for an afternoon of brain cell scrambling, the debauched atmosphere is nevertheless off-putting to even the most liberal of on-lookers, so it’s easy to understand why Danish Parliament has had its pants in a bunch over the issue. To make matters worse, for a time in the 1980s, Christiania had a small but recurring problem with harder drugs skulking into their community. The Christianites have always been resolutely against this type of drug use and in an effort to cleanse their community of such activities and simultaneously appease the disapproving Danish Parliament, Christiania was proactive in offering withdrawal treatment to junkies and ejecting the offending dealers.
Over the years, Christiania has been able to fight off threats of having their homes bulldozed, police harrassment and negative public scrutiny as a result of media slandering by launching various awareness campaigns to educate people about their broader, idealist goals of “an alternative life based on communal living and freedom” and “an ecological oriented city, based on a modest economy and extensive self government.” Christiania’s web site which is in dire need of updating and a once-over by someone for whom English is their first language, thoroughly details the continual challenges, successes and failures that the community has weathered over the years both in Denmark and other countries around the world. To this end, Christiania has hosted countless theatrical and musical performances and hatched ingenius public relations events like the annual “Christmas for the Poor and Lonely.” Additionally, they have used non-violent activism along with admirable political involvement to educate and win the hearts of many of their former detractors, which included at one point, the entire country of Sweden. The Swedes had allegedly launched a “smear campaign” and hilariously labeled Christiania “the drug center of North Europe,” (Never mind that good ol’ Amsterdam is just a click to the southwest) and the slightly over-dramtic “root of all evil.” The Christianites responded by initiating “Love Sweden,” an awareness building crusade into Sweden that included cabaret shows, exhibitions and huge processions through the cities of Stockholm, Göthenborg and Malmö.
All else aside, it’s clear that Christiania’s original vision has come to a commendable level of fruition. During the 1960s and 70s, a period when undoubtedly hundreds if not thousands of like-minded groups of people around the world dreamed of and maybe even attempted to establish similar communities, Christiania’s determination, savvy and luck has allowed them to achieve long term survival. At this point, their success, longevity and a more relaxed and open-minded Danish culture – not to mention being a viable tourism draw – seems to have ensured that the “social experiment” will persist indefinitely. Indeed, after having their way of life studied and the enthusiastic conclusions published by a social research institute, Christiania may yet provide concepts and guidance for solutions to larger scale traditional city and societal obstacles.
POSTSCRIPT: Apparently within moments of the author’s final visit to Christiania (July 2003), a renewed investigation into the sale of hash was launched and series of crackdowns began. In January of 2004, dealers dismantled their booths in an effort to stave off a large scale raid, but less conspicuous sales of hash continued. Minor police incursions into Pusher Street over the first part of 2004 culminated in a huge 10 hour invasion on March 16th where police arrested 53 people and tore down several former hash booths. “The raid is not against Christiania, it’s against the hashish sale,” said police spokesman Flemming Steen Munch. The Danish government said that Christiania could remain an alternative lifestyle community as long as residents obey the law, pay rent and stop selling drugs.
Since January 2003, 1,903 pounds of hashish, estimated to be worth $7.5 million, have been seized.