There are invisible boundaries and borders marked by low walls and art work. You pass a neat, middle-class florist by a Copenhagen canal and then enter under an archway. Then the buildings change. Surfaces are now inscribed with the graffiti of a thousand colours. Structures are reshaped and are placed erratically around the grass and looping pathways. These are the homes of Christiania. This is all Christiania, an anarchist commune in the centre of Copenhagen.
There is perhaps nowhere else like it remaining in the world. Founded and claimed in 1971 from an abandoned military barracks, Christiania has survived and grown as a people’s commune in Copenhagen’s east district. It is declared ‘The Freetown’. Opting out of Danish laws and regulations has generated an “experiment in living”. It has also generated friction with states authorities. Yet today Christiania survives as an embodiment of ‘counter-culture’ and local self-governance. The 850 residents have their own police force, currency and democratic process. Against the odds – squashed within a burgeoning metropolitan capital – this community has declared their own independence and took charge of their own affairs. Are there lessons for Scotland?
Perhaps the most pertinent lessons for Scotland are from Danish local democracy generally – where local government is trusted and holds real fiscal power. Even within this context, Christiania is an exceptional case – perhaps an irrelevant case, but a story worth a tour nonetheless.
Within their autonomy, art flourishes. On my first visit to Christiania I was greeted by an open-air concert. Wiker-man style statues are dotted around the meadows. Solvognen – a famous theatre collective – was born here. Into the night a fire-dancer lights the cobbled paths.
Old warehouses become social factories. I hear the hammering of youths adapting an indoor skate-park. Thirty teenage skaters and smokers surround the arena, skipping backwards and forwards on the ramps. They build steadily in time to their accompanying r ‘n b soundtrack. It is not a youth centre. No one is in charge and there is no closing time. One boarder is a visitor from Norway. I ask why she comes to Christiania. “It is peaceful here”, she says.
Another warehouse has been renovated into a night-club, which provides a lifetime of cigarette smoke for 30 Krona. Capitalism lives on, with consumerism not far from the surface. There are bars, standard bars. Christiania even has its own brand of beer. Another sound-system blasts out US/Euro-pop.
However, the most controversial exchange is in cannabis. The legalisation of ‘soft drugs’ has been a prominent aspect of Christiania’s identity. As I walk through the ‘green district’ I am pressed inwards by rival pot sales-men (all men) whose eyes gleam towards tourists. The smell permeates the air and culture. The trade brings a certain clientèle – debatably for better and for worse – as well as the attention of Danish police authorities.
Beyond the haze and lingering clouds of this smoke, is the fresh air of Christiania’s eastern bank. The tight buildings subside, leading to a collection of lochs. It is an interesting place – somewhere so small and quasi-independent. Communal huts are dotted by the water. You can hear the birds, sporadically at least, above the dimming techno music and the din of nearby market place. Couples sit sheltered, lying together, within the forest. They say – like the skaters – that they come here for peace and freedom. It is Rousseauian. Yet the sounds of the outside world push in. The roar of the car engines upon surrounding motorways cannot be suppressed. Beyond the lake you can still see and smell the factories. Copenhagen’s Radisson Hotel is striking on the horizon above the treetops.
Grey clouds gather overhead before the rains close my laptop. After 42 year there are continuous challenges and pressures placed upon Christiania’s environment. Politicians and police resent the challenge to their monopoly of force, law and territory; and the challenge to the standard economic model that Christiania represents. One parliamentarian said of the land: “they seized government property and have been living on it and that’s worth a lot of money now.” It is precious to the residents and developers in different ways. Residents cherish collectivity, commercial outsiders call for private housing by the rich riverbank. There have been several police raids and flash points in the last decade. In 2004 police attempts to shut down the cannabis trade backfired, when criminal gangs seized the opportunity of Christiania’s closure to spread drug dens across the city. Now there is permission for the residents to remain and they pay a reduced rent for the land, electricity and water.
Yet a determined government could call a halt to the project if they so desired. The police could be called in to evict the tenants. The community would die. It would disappear off the face of the earth in the short time it would take a bulldozer to flatten the buildings and for a politician with a housing development group to lay the concrete and lack the bricks slab by slab. Then Christiania would be gone – submerged into the normality of Copenhagen’s other canal banks.
As it stands, the resistance of residents has withstood such threats. Whatever verdict is drawn on Christiania, its independence – the power of its local community – is impressive. They built a community, a history and an identity from scratch. Ingenuity – over several generations – has sustained Christiania, with the ability of the community to resolve conflicts democratically has prevented in fighting.
Jacob Ludvigsen co-authored Christiania’s 1971 mission statement said that
“The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.”
Over 40 years later, such optimism is surprisingly undiminished. I speak to Kenneth, who runs a market stall.
“It has worked for 40 years. There are more problems every day in the rest of Copenhagen than there are here.” he said. “This is our community and we take responsibility for it. As everyone knows each other here, if you misbehave there are consequences and you can’t hide it. At the same time, we make our own decisions. This is what freedom looks like. There really is no where else in the world like here.”
I ask Kenneth how their democracy survives without representatives and elections. He tells me of its informality: big hall meetings are called in response to collective problems. There are discussions and decisions by consensus. It’s that simple. Recently Christiania has a problem with cocaine users. So a poster campaign was launched and drug tests were organised.
As he enjoyed our discussion, Kenneth even gave me a discount on a t-shirt: ‘Bevar Christiania! (‘Save Christiania!) it reads. It’s an old slogan from when they faced down threats of closure. “Will they threaten the community again?”, I ask. Kenneth is confident and references the new arrangement to transfer ownership. “The government still own the land, but we are buying it – piece by piece, year by year. Then Christiania will be here forever.”
The price of Christiania’s freedom – perhaps like freedom everywhere – is the eternal vigilance of citizenship. That is still alive.
I leave outwards back into the well marked streets, bright lighting systems, perpendicular turns and pavements, steep looming house fronts and row upon row of cars squashed tightly to the kerbs. Outwards, the city of Copenhagen looms large. In contrast I felt a quiet significance in Christiania. It is one, small example of Danish self-governance and self-confidence. That it is small, survives and thrives is perhaps what generates that significance: a lesson that smallness is something to treasure in its own way.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) July 8, 2013