Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in Christiania
Photograph: Flickr / Annaspies
A year ago I wrote an article for Perspectives on the state of anarchism in Freetown Christiania. Little did I know then that I would go on to become the Freetown’s Researcher in Residence, living in the heart of the community for a month this summer. What I learnt was that much of what I thought I knew was wrong. This is an article about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in what is surely one of the most striking communities in Europe.
Let me just paint the scenes that started Freetown Christiania. It’s 1971, social problems are rife across Copenhagen. The rich are moving out to the suburbs whilst retaining ownership of central properties. The population is growing, the poorest are running out of space in cramped and poor quality housing. Squatting is on the up with a quasi-legal foundation and discontent is growing. People want better or they want out.
Then it strikes the editors of an underground newspaper! Right in the centre of Copenhagen, just a stone’s throw away from the Palace and old Stock Exchange is a whole neighbourhood in the waiting – the abandoned military barracks once used to defend the city against the siege of Nelson, now simply used for storage of chemicals and out of date equipment. It doesn’t take long before the initiative is on foot and a group break in, test the waters by building a playground and soon declare an independent state striving true to the principles of self-sufficiency. The ‘hippie’ paradise, the new beginnings for alternative culture, a neighbourhood under the iron fist of tolerance and love. If you want out of a state at the source of all social problems, immigrate downtown on the bus to a community that can solve all, much to the indifference of the Danish Military who simply shrugged their shoulders. And so they lived happily ever after in a utopian reality….
Sort of. Christiania still survives and even thrives. To this day it is 800 residents strong with an impressive capacity for independent mindedness and community self-awareness. There is no such thing as apathy in Christiania; if you live there, your life is political – but it is also free from the hegemonic chains of neo-liberalism that binds all just a couple of streets down. It is a beautiful neighbourhood, my month there was like living in a magical overgrown city park, complete with its own lake, bars, playgrounds and pushers. The iconic Pusher’s Street, the most visible of two fingered solutions Christiania puts to the state, is doing steady and ready business in hash provision services. Yes, the government gives the area trouble, but trouble could almost literally be its middle name. I may be far from an anarchist myself, but Christiania is over 40 years old and quite frankly I’m forced to admit they must be doing something right.
This is a fairly rosy picture. Christiania does have a lot of problems. The police keep raiding residents’ homes (“something about drugs”, they mutter to me), the government has forced them to buy the housing on the land, leading to heated debates on whether the very principles on which the neighbourhood was established are being compromised under the threat of repossession and redevelopment (it’s valuable land). Their society is far from cohesive; for some the regular committee meetings, the principles, the politics and the occasional stabbings or violent attacks (although they are less frequent than they use to be) are all too much, for others they compromise their values, but on balance, to many, they are just life.
What I’ve said so far was what I knew this time last year. I also thought this time last year that Christiania was lawless in that they had no use of emergency services, police, hospitals, schools, etc. I was wrong, they do. Got a problem in Christiania? Well, do something about it! At the heart of Christiania is action, too many people there are too familiar with the apathy of disgruntled people moaning without acting and with governments who manage discontent in exchange for power. The community will support you if you need money, labour or resources. Of course not all requests can be easily accepted, but that’s what they neighbourhood community meetings are for (there are 13 neighbourhoods in Christiania), as well as budget committee meetings, whole Christiania meetings – ah, a lot of meetings. For the bigger decisions beyond improving your house and garden, you’ve got to call a meeting and every decision made in a meeting has to be unanimous.
This is where the problems under the surface begin. Take a whole community meeting to discuss the threat the government has laid down: that if the residents don’t eventually buy their houses, they will be turned out and the land will be sold off to developers. This struck the community to the core, long had the government wanted to normalise Christiania, and now it was doing so with subtle duress. Introducing the landownership principle would destroy one of the central tenants of a community that rejects the neo-liberal property-owning way of doing things. Nobody owns their houses, the houses are a part of the community. This was a debate that really showcased the passions of residents. Not everyone turns up to community meetings, but a lot did when this was on the agenda. A decision was reached eventually to set up a community share scheme to sell ‘shares’ (donations certificates in reality) to raise the money for a community syndicate to buy the houses, the principle of individualist property ownership avoided! Yet in reality, it’s just not that simple.
In these meetings, if a whole room of hundreds of people say yes with the exception of one, nothing happens – the decision does not carry. Ironically in a community set around the principle of total equality, with nobody having the powers of coercion over any other, they have a system of direct, unanimous democracy that effectively values the voice of one as equal to those of one hundred. This has evident philosophical problems attached to it, but more practically it raises the question of how to resolve important and controversial issues. Often the answer is a lot of compromise, and it was here. But for some it was too much, and they left Christiania, saying that the bastion of alternative culture had fallen. Others stayed but feel that this is no longer the Christiania they helped to build.
But has Christiania really sold out? This is what became for me more and more of a central focus of fascination. Christiania is world famous for its principled stand against the state, but is this really the case anymore? Has what was once evidently radical become normalised? My conclusion is mostly a cautioned yes, but the forces of the government tell only half the story.
Christiania, with a residency of 800, received 2 million tourists in 2013. Christiania is on every tourist map, on the minds of anyone who wants to experiment with drugs and alternative cultures and is the daydream of many ordinary Danes who sit in normal 9 – 5 office jobs wishing they were somewhere else. The economic implications of this magnetism are impressive. Imagine the money that 2 million tourists a year bring to this neighbourhood economy. In an interview with those at the Finance Office of Christiania (itself a controversial creation) I was staggered to learn that the annual budget for Christiania last year was 39 million DKK (£4.1 million) and growing. A large proportion of this admittedly comes from rents and bills (water, electricity, gas, etc) which residents pay to the office. But much comes from the payments local businesses make to the community coffers to get permission to set up shop.
A casual visitor to Christiania, like I was a year ago, would be forgiven for wondering where everyone lived. Upon entering through the colourful gates, you are greeted with stalls, bars, pushers, restaurants, cafes, bike shops, clothes shops, even a stage venue. Some run by outsiders and some run by residents, there is serious business to be had here. Anywhere you go in Copenhagen you see bikes and many of those bikes will be of Christiania’s patented brand – and quite pricey they are too. Tourists have brought revenue to the community and the community has never been so healthy in this sense. Although the finance office emphatically does not accept money from the soft drugs trade that operates (they are aware it is illegal – Christiania still mostly adheres to Danish law), they operate a remarkably successful community cooperative and so don’t actually need it. They can afford to hire people in their nurseries, building projects and in the community at above minimum wage. They can afford to repair the streets, install new boilers, build new storeys to their buildings, refurbish playgrounds and send residents on skills and education courses, and are in fact well on track to meeting the government’s demand to buy their housing.
For a community where an overwhelming proportion of the population have never progressed beyond primary school, have been in jail or homeless, were abandoned at a young age, or had drug problems, this is impressive. Christiania is not just offering residents a second chance, but a serious chance of a good life, and as such numbers of applications to live there are through the roof. But as with everything in this community, this is not universally welcomed. As friendly and as open as most residents are, most are tiring of life constantly under the tourist gaze. One resident who works in the shares office told me of how Christiania is now a theme park, not a meaningful experiment in living. This may strike of small-mindedness at first, but in reality it strikes at something far more pertinent. Christiania is becoming normalised.
The original occupants of Christiania lived in caravans, ate at community halls, showered, washed and did chores communally. Now most have water and electricity direct to their houses. They have showers, basins, plugs, washing machines and wifi. I did, and I was living in a converted lorry container on top of a 200 year old explosives chamber. I’m certainly not against these things, they are signs of a good quality of life, but they are also signs of comfort, affluence, a creeping emphasis on the value of ‘things’.
In allowing it to survive, what the fates have ironically brought Christiania is a creeping hold of purchasing power, the neo-liberal way is knocking most quietly before it slips in through the back door. But it is important not to label Christiania a failure. Because there are still clothes donation stalls around Christiania and they get used, every morning you walk along the streets there are so many homeless people sleeping in the grass they might as well be residents, every bottle left on the side or put in a bin is collected by someone (often a foreign national in Denmark illegally) who turns it in for recycling to make a hand-to-mouth living. The residents may be becoming more comfortable, but Christiania is still a safe haven for the most vulnerable who need somewhere to go.
Christiania will always be a fluid and dynamic place, its history reveals that much. So despite concluding that Christiania is normalising into a community cooperative structure in terms of its political economy, it remains like trying to put my finger on a mirage, the closer you get to defining it, the further it slips away from you. Visit, and see what I mean.