First, what Is Christiania? Christiania is a “freetown” – in 1971 squatters took over an abandoned military site in Copenhagen and proclaimed it a free self-governing utopian society. Since then many things have happened – the full history is better related elsewhere – many of which have generated all manner of controversy. Gangs attempted to take over and use it as a base for selling hard drugs (especially heroine) the state attempted to shut it down, the police raided several times… but all that is the past. Today, it is known as something of a tourist attraction, but that didn’t deter me, and I did venture forth to find out what it’s all about. The principal of a free town organised on anarchist principals fascinates me – I am by nature deeply anti-authoritarian and have a great sympathy for anarchist ideas, however I have little enough faith in humanity to believe that a society can function without state-like institutions… anyway enough political philosophy and onto the tour!
The main entrance to Christiania is a wildly painted gate in a pleasant district of Copenhagen. There is little about the neighbourhood to suggest Christiania’s existence. But when you pass the gate, this becomes clearer. See, I was expecting some kind of post-industrial ghetto district, where strange people moved between high grey disaffected warehouses and factories. I don’t think I’m alone in this. When you go in however, the impression is more that of a park in an quirky and artistic neighbourhood of a modern city – the sort of thing you might find in Berlin or London. The site is actually not very dense or heavily built up – it’s really very green. You are greeted with funny sculptures made of junk and, of course, the aroma of cannabis.
Because this is really the draw for many people here – cannabis/marijuana/whatever you want to call it is sold openly down what the guide calls “pusher street”. Again, the image that came to my mind was of some sketchy alleyway populated by threatening bedreadlocked types. Wrong again. Firstly the name – it’s signposted as the “green light district” which frankly sounds a lot less threatening. And as i mentioned, the site if very open and green, so it’s not an alleyway – it’s barely even a street, more just an area between several low buildings which probably used to be barracks. The most amusing thing to see when you get there are the signs. The first one admonishes “No Photos”. Understandable, as despite Denmark’s relatively tolerant attitude to drugs selling cannabis remains illegal and no one is keen to be photographed doing it. The second and much more surreal sign advises “No Running”. This, I think, was the first thing I saw with real negative connotations. Let me explain.
The reason you are told not to run is in order to no to cause a panic. The reason you might cause a panic is that Christiania remains a squatted settlement. Underneath it all lies a creeping uncertainty, the shadow of conflict. Police raids have happened and cause a lot of pain and unhappiness for residents. This seems to have left a genuine streak of paranoia, such that people running might be enough to spread fear of another attack. Of course, many of the people in the green light district are also not there on ideological grounds – they are just dealers who have a safe haven for their business, and have good reason to be paranoid of the police. Of course, all the cannabis probably doesn’t help on the paranoia front. On the other hand, after thinking all this I also imagined a herd of hairy, half naked hippies stampeding like frightened wildebeest (and making approximately the same sound). That made me chuckle. Of course that’s very unfair to the actual populace – which brings me on to…
… the people. Who of course didn’t look at all like stereotypical hippies. In fact the Green Light district was mostly visitors I feel – people come to get high for the most part. Tourists and locals, mostly decent. Some teenagers clearly a bit too young to be there. Not that the dealers had any qualms about selling them hash – dealers are dealers anywhere and simply plonking them down in a utopian freetown doesn’t make them less terrible human beings. Mostly people I’m cool with, except for the Party Animal types (emphasis on animal). Ok so I try to be cool with the full breadth and spectrum of humanity, all the odd fads and fashions that people subscribe to. But there’s just something about dudes with shaved heads, designer tshirt-jeans combos and shades which I really can’t stand. Although maybe its the attitude, the body language behind the get-up that really pisses me off, they give off the air of dumb arrogance – pride with nothing to be proud of, demanding attention while delivering nothing noteworthy. It’s just loud and obnoxious and I can’t stand it. Several of these freaks were also manning the drug stalls – slightly vacant gazes and all. Another somewhat unpleasant but at least amusing group was one I ran into turning a corner into a series of bars. Here I came across the Angry Man Corner. So in this corner there were a bunch of guys all smoking large joints and doing their best to look gangsta. It was weird. They just sort of glowered at everyone – trying to look tough i guess – and hadn’t seemed to have realised that the idea is to have a good time. Strange people, and I steered clear.
Apart from that the crowd was merry, people smoking, eating at the few stalls scattered around, sitting and enjoying the sun. Surprisingly few truly weird people considering the setting. I heard a description which I thought apt – it’s like Disneyland for grown ups. A sort of playground where people can escape the some of the rules of daily life, where they can do something a bit illegal and exciting. And like Disneyland, it’s a shallow experience. This is not the beating heart of a counter culture, this is not the mustering ground for a revolution. When people walk through that gate, they most definitely bring their preconceptions and their problems with them – like Disneyland, troubled and abused children remain so even in Mickey’s arms and on the roller coaster rides.
And so I walked on, deeper into Christiania, feeling slightly disappointed. But. It doesn’t end there! Because as I walked on and the crowds thinned, I started to see a different side to the place. On the far side of the green light district you come to the waterside – a beautiful stretch of lush park where people sit and dip their toes in. And dotted throughout this green area are houses. Some of there must have been part of the military complex, but many were clearly made by residents. They vary from simple huts not much more than garden sheds to beautiful wooden buildings made with care in the Nordic style. This is when I realised that the whole entrance area and the Green Light district was just a small fraction of what is actually a very large area. It is just a tourist catchment area, where people go to play and take a few drugs and which doesn’t have much relation to the rest of the place.
The majority of Christiania is in fact a sort of park residential area. Most of the houses are neat and in beautiful settings by the water. They seemed to be kitted out with water and power, in fact several times when I had walked quite far I had to check thatI was still in Christiania and not in some suburban neighbourhood. I saw a family barbecuing outside a nice bungalow and thought – everything you need to live is right there. There are also larger buildings with workshops and equipment supplies. In all, it seems a pleasant place to live. It’s hard to see it and imagine the stories related on wikipedia of gang violence and heroine trade taking place here. In fact I feel a strong argument could be made for preserving the place as-is just on the basis of wildlife conservation, as the expanse of green and the lack of cars have encouraged all sorts of animals to settle here. Of course one missing piece in this picture is the residents. I didn’t meet any, so I can’t really comment. From my experience – and wikipedia – I imagine a mixed bag. People in alternative communities like this one are generally well meaning, but can be also ideologically stubborn and inflexible. Not to mention distrusting, though in that respect they would at least be justified.
Because for all the playground feel of the drug district and the “good life” atmosphere of the rest of it, Christiania remains under political pressure to end its mode of operation one way or another. And what makes me a bit sick about this is how cynical it is. The politicians get inflamed over the drugs issue, but that’s really not what they care about. I know what they care about, and a little illustration might let you guess too. On one side of Christiania is a canal. On the opposite bank of this canal is a recent housing development. A particularly fancy and high class development. How fancy you ask? Each house has a garden. Each garden backs onto the canal. And in the canal, each house has a private boat. Yes – every house in this development owns a boat. Every. House. Now do you know what the politicians really care about? Money, as usual. What’s really pissing the establishment off is nothing to do with alternative governments or drug issues. They couldn’t really care less if a couple of dealers get into a fight every now en then. What pisses them off is seeing people living in beautiful waterfront properties and not paying through the nose for it. Poor people enjoying great things for free, in short. The government looks at Christiania and thinks “prime land for real estate”. For the rest, they don’t really care.
Which is a shame – there could be some interesting exchange of ideas. Not to say Christiania is perfect. In fact, even having discovered the “other” Christiania, away from the drugs, I can’t say I’m terribly impressed. It still doesn’t feel like a place that generates radical ideas, or that is at the forefront of anything much. Nor does it feel like a place for the development of great minds (something I’m particularly keen on) – although I find many similar efforts have a disappointing streak of anti-intellectualism. I guess in the end I don’t find Christiania that special. It may have been completely new once, but today autonomous communities are sprouted a bit all over the place, and often on stronger and more certain bases. Nor has Christiania solved any of the environmental problems that concern me – they are still fundamentally linked to the city around them, importing industrial goods and accepting free exchange of people. They are an unusual city district rather than a unique island. Of course the diversity is important, and I do think that is something governments still struggle to come to terms with. The pressure to conform is immense, the need to regulate, control, unify, homogenise and commoditise is huge. Governments just can’t deal with things that are fluid, uncertain, and out of their hands. Loosing Christiania through it’s transformation into a regular city block and the loss of its communitarian governance system would be a massive loss for culture.
And despite my somewhat negative sounding comments I am still very happy I visited, and very happy that it exists. The negative views are only because I strive to maintain high standards – this is how we grow and improve. Saying “Christiania is the utopia” is simply false – it is fun, interesting, and surprising, it is a radical departure from the norm but it does not solve many problems that need solving, and introduces a few of its own. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about, and hopefully some of those thoughts will make their way into worthy blog posts – in particular thoughts I had about drugs, intellectualism, and the nurturing of Mind. Maybe even another article about Christiania just as a tourist – I’ve tried to condense my impressions without being too abridged but I do feel I could say a lot more about many of the things I mentioned here. Of course the best is to see for yourself – I strongly recommend it, especially if you have the time to explore. The wikipedia article makes it sound a bit daunting, but it really isn’t. Just make sure you go while it’s still there!