February 12, 2017
Freetown Christiania always seems to mired in controversy. It might be Copenhagen’s second most popular attraction behind only Tivoli, but last year’s shooting of two police officers by a dealer has again put the spotlight on Christiania’s drug trade.
Christiania was founded in 1971 during the height of the Free love movement, led by journalist Jacob Ludvigsen. Making use of pre-existing infrastructure at a 34-hectare site of an abandoned army barrack and rampart, the initial settlers attempted to create a self-governing society that is self-sustainable economically from scratch whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community. The Social Democratic government granted the official temporary status of “social experiment” in 1973, and the status quo was passed into law in 1989 by the parliament, thus legalizing the enclave.
Instead of entering through the main entrance near Skt. Annæ Gade, I get off the bus 9A at Bodenhoffs Plads, then approach Christiania from the graffiti-strewn Refshalevej. After taking a right turn into a side road I find myself in a small residential area; a few wooden houses and a tiny playground. Not sure if I am infringing anyone’s privacy, but since nobody is in sight on this frigid morning I decide to take a stroll. The houses are self-built, often using recycled material. Discarded tire becomes a swing. A few plants are growing in a small communal garden.
Getting lost is part of the fun. I come across a self-proclaimed sculpture museum, a yard filled with self-made surrealistic stone sculptures. Moving along, I begin to spot murals on all kinds of surface, from walls to doors to trash bins to an entire house. Most inexplicable is a house decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and cartoon characters pinned to tree branches. Perhaps there are some deep meanings, but to my earthly-minded eyes this house looks exactly like the setting of a slasher movie.
A few detours and wrong turns later I have finally made my way to Mælkebøtten, the yellow rocket factory turned town hall. Outside of the gate is a Buddhist stupa converted into a section of a fur coat shop — another sign of Christianite’s reverent of Tibetan culture. This also seems to be the beginning of the commercial strip with an increase of pedestrians, almost all of them tourists.
While the rest of the world is looking to Denmark as inspiration, some Danes are looking far abroad. A rainbow-coloured house named “South Pacific” contrasts sharply with the frosty weather. The deep green and bright red circle reminds me of the Bangladeshi flag more than anything South Pacific related.
Many mural-covered houses later, I have arrived the infamous Pusher Street where cannabis is sold. Simply follow the smell of hash and you will find it eventually. Photo is forbidden around this area.
Christiania’s issues with drugs can be traced back to the very beginning; widespread use of hard drugs led to ten deaths in 1978, leading to a concentrated effort by the community to push out the drug dealers in 1979 and forbidding the sales of hard drugs since. Once ran by small-time dealers, the cannabis trade has taken root in Christiania and is now controlled by international crime syndicates, including the Danish branch of the Hell’s Angels.
An openly-traded drug zone in the heart of Copenhagen where cannabis is illegal has understandably driven a constant rift between Christianites and the Danish law enforcement. Large scale police raids had temporarily closed down most of the drug stalls in 2004 but soon the dealers returned. Tension again arose after last year’s shooting and in response Christianites flattened all hash stalls and appealed to potential customers to do their purchases elsewhere.
Business is supposed to be much slower than in its heyday but a few stubborn drug stalls are trying to buck the trend. Customers are scarce. Here you can see Christiania’s popularity; many tourists congest in and around Pusher Street, turning a potentially tense situation between locals, police and dealers into a bizarro tourist attraction.
In 2011 the Danish government had ruled Christianites must own their plots, albeit at a below-market price, which in capitalist Denmark is understandable as Christiania covers some of Copenhagen’s most valuable real estate. Despite their reluctance the locals are exploring ways to raise the required capital, one of which is through donation by letting tourists own symbolic shares of the community.
Cultural hotbed, hippie enclave, relic of a bygone era, drug haven — opinions of Freetown Christiania are undoubtedly varied. What admirers and detractors both tend to agree is this neighbourhood could only exist in Copenhagen and it has become part of the capital’s identity, for better or worse. Between gentrification, the government’s stance on enforcing land ownership by the collectivist Christianites and the drug trade, the prospect of Christiania preserving its identity moving forward is far from a certainty. But no matter what happens, many people have rooted their lives in this community for the past four decades. This is their home.