Christiania – the communal enclave founded out of the squatting movement in the early 1970s
Date: 5 May, 2004
Source: The Guardian
On May 1, as ten new countries celebrated joining the EU, thousands of Danes took to the streets of Copenhagen in a final effort to prevent one small part of the Danish capital from ever having to enter it. Christiania – the communal enclave founded out of the squatting movement in the early 1970s – regards itself as a “free state” within Denmark; so much so that as you leave the leafy quarter of lakes, shared warehouses, coffeeshops, bicycle shops and vegetarian restaurants, an archway sign warns you that “You are now entering the EU.”
That all may be about to change. In January, the 100 or so dealers who make a living selling varieties of grass and hash on the main boulevard – Pusher Street – destroyed their makeshift stalls, as the level of police raids and harassment put the whole commune under threat.
The bigger change may now come from plans by the coalition centre-right government in Denmark to rid the capital of this early example of a sustainable eco-living. After 33 varying years of tolerance, support or condemnation, the final death rattle of hippiedom in mainland Europe may be about to take place in this small corner of Copenhagen.
Which would be a crying shame. For the European cannabis connoisseur, or simply the more radical or politicised traveller, Christiania offers not just a refuge from the stag do and US frat boys of Amsterdam, but a vision of a sustainable future along the lines of Noam Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism.
Although no longer accepting new residents, the 1,000 or so existing inhabitants (from all over the world – not just Danes) decide things communally through a self-government based on the “Common Meeting”. There are no laws, and only four “rules” – no hard drugs, no weapons, no violence and no trading within buildings or residential areas.
So what is the current state of play in the 840 acres of political no man’s land? Worrying but vague noises had reached the British press of the police raids – one last month netting another 50 people suspected of dealing soft drugs – but little news on how the commune was coping.
First impressions are optimistic – a walk out of the city centre over the Knippelsbro bridge towards Christiania soon sees the unfeasibly chic Copenhageners give way to crowds with dreadlocks and piercings. From outside the commune, just by the famous Vor Frelsers Kirke, with its external spiral staircase clambering up the spire, the scene appears the same as it has in previous years: the usual two gates to enter the compound, complete freedom of access, and no signs of police.
That changes immediately on entering. Where once the central Pusher Street was a bustling market of stalls and trestle tables, selling weed by the jar-full and hash by the brick-sized block, there is just a couple of stands selling T-shirts, bongs, pipes and rizlas. And a big posse of riot police, with dogs and truncheons.
Like all Danes, the coppers seem to range from 6’2″ to 6’5″, and are more than happy to meet your eye – indeed, they seem to take a pleasure in staring out the unwary visitor. Quite whom they are protecting from who, however, is unclear.
Certainly it’s a great shame that the stalls, with their selection of Northern Lights, Purple Haze, Skunk, Orange Bud, and hashes from Morocco and Afghanistan have gone – they provided the greatest selection of marijuana outside, or possibly even including, the Netherlands.
Yet it will only take a couple of minutes for the visitor to be heralded with the familiar cry of “Hash?” and shepherded into a discreet corner or bar for a deal to be done.
What quickly becomes apparent is that – in true caring-sharing style – lookouts are discreetly posted and whistle to alert shopkeepers and unwary tokers that the police, in groups of about eight officers, are making their patrols. In the 48 hours I was there, no policeman appeared to stop anyone, let alone make any arrests, and their presence is clearly there as a dampner. The full-on raids are carried out by riot police, and, usually, in the early hours of the morning.
People I spoke to – stallholders, bar owners – were surprisingly optimistic, saying that the police harassment had been going on for six months, but they had survived worse before. Few seemed savvy to the threat from property developers and/or the government, although perhaps 30 years of frying one’s brains on the world’s best marijuana might tend one towards the phlegmatic.
As for the rest of Christiania, away from the desolate thoroughfare that was Pusher Street, life seems to go on very much as normal – “normal” by a self-governing squat’s criteria, anyhow.
The jewel in the crown of Christiania remains the Spiseloppen, quite simply one of Copenhagen, and the world’s, most atmospheric restaurants. A rota of international chefs, plus fresh organic produce, combined with a light, airy warehouse setting and the freedom to roll one’s own between courses, makes for a popular, and surprisingly upmarket, experience. (I ate Norwegian reindeer with organic gooseberries.) Be warned, though, that booking is nigh on essential, and that first-timers will assume they have come to the wrong place, so shabby is the entrance up to the second floor restaurant from ground level. Open 5-10pm, Tues-Sun.
Downstairs on the first floor of the huge Victorian warehouse lies the Loppen, a bar and gig venue which plays hosts to bands nearly every night of the week, followed, on Fridays and Saturdays, by djs through until the early hours of the morning. The weekend we visited saw the alt-country US star Victoria Williams playing, although the previous night had seen Finland’s finest rockers, Sweatmaster (friends of The Darkness, apparently.)
For vegetarians, and for laid-back lunches, the Morgenstedet is a one-room hippy heaven. Open-plan kitchen, with three hot dishes constantly on the go, and a plethora of seriously substantial salads, houmous and freshly baked bread to go with it, a truly filling and wholesome meal won’t set you back more than about a fiver. No alcohol, open 12noon – 9pm.
For an afternoon coffee, cake or game of chess, the Moonfisher Coffeshop is right in the centre of Christiania. This is the closest approximation to the traditional Dutch-style coffeeshop, with Middle Eastern men, away from their wives or businesses, stoking up chillums or hookahs whilst rabidly playing backgammon, while spliff-smoking twentysomethings play table football. Chess sets are available behind the bar, as is a great selection of teas, coffees, cakes – and Save Christiania! badges (Bevar Christiania!)
Probably the cafe that has taken the biggest battering from the police crackdown is Nemoland, due to its proximity to Pusher Street. Never the most prepossessing of Christiania’s smoking joints, its big selling point – an outside plaza with dozens of picnic benches for al fresco toking, has somewhat lost its USP due to the frequency of the police patrols. Not recommended for the later stages of cannabis paranoia.
There are plenty more sights worth seeing in Christiana – the boating lake, the Tibet exhibition, the Grey Hall (which has hosted gigs by everyone from Blur to Bob Dylan), and, my personal favourite, the Pederson bike shop next door to the Moonfisher, where the 19th century “hammock-style” bike has been recreated in 21st century hi-tech glory. Be warned – these are beautiful bikes, not museum pieces -and retail at about 2,000.
Strangely enough for a car-free commune, Christiania’s most famous export, the Christiania bike – a load-carrying trike, which you will see all over Copenhagen, and, increasingly, European capitals including London – is no longer made in the commune, but has moved to elsewhere in Copenhagen.
Now the government is considering finally evicting the 1,000 plus residents of Christiania in favour of turning the 34 hectares over to private developers. The enormous, brick and wood built, military barracks will certainly make millions if turned into yuppie loft conversions, but it’s hard to see how the unique and idiosyncratic style in which they find themselves now – solar panels, organic produce grown on site, complete recycling of household waste – could be improved upon.
The large Victorian warehouses were originally military barracks, of the sort beloved by UK property speculators, in the centre of a city full of quayside apartments and street cafes. One option that may be given to the inhabitants of Christiania is to form a cooperative and buy their land back from the state but few believe the Christianians possess that sort of market mentality, or would want to get involved in the rat race to the extent that would entail.