Christiania: The Free Town That Is About to Be Sold

Nestled in the heart of the Danish capital Copenhagen, Europe's most famous urban commune faces its D-Day after forty years of iconoclastic independence.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Nathan Thornburgh / Roads & Kingdoms

View of the Christianshavn neighborhood of Copenhagen, as seen from the tower of the Church of Our Saviour. At center is the autonomous enclave of Christiania, a hippie commune on the site of a former Naval base, May 13, 2012.

Tanja Fox, 44, the daughter of a Danish hippie and an American photographer on the run from the Vietnam draft, was only four when her mother brought her to Christiania, the autonomous enclave in the heart of Copenhagen. Fox raised her own children here as the commune grew famous and somehow survived forty years of threats to its existence. When it started in 1971 with a local altweekly’s call to “immigrate” by bus to the abandoned Bådsmandsstrædes Naval base, the movement seemed like it might be a last gasp of rebellion from the ’68 generation. But the industrious Danes set down roots and built a town with their own hands on those occupied lands, complete with schools, bars, clinics, grocery stores, even stables. Almost a thousand people still live there, on 84 acres of prime real estate in the middle of the Danish capital, making their own rules, raising their own levies, and pursuing their own bliss.

Fox’s life seems a particular model of utopian contentment. She drinks herbal tea, wears knit sweaters, grows fat-lipped Technicolor tulips in her garden, takes her Jack Russell terrier named Yupi on a 6am walk through Christiania every morning. On a recent afternoon in Christiania, she took me on that walk, past the handhewn geometric Banana House, along the old ramparts that were built centuries ago to keep the Swedes out, and down to the newly seeded lawn that slopes into the lake. More Christiania homes were huddled cozily on the far shore as a breeze picked up the sails of a toy boat in the lake. “Look at this,” she said. “We are living in heaven.”

(More from Roads & Kingdoms: 16 Things to Know Before You Go to Denmark)

This heaven, though, has an expiration date: July 1, 2012. That’s the day when, after decades of pitched battle with Danish authorities, Christiania finally bows its head to accept the most basic, and hated, rule of outside society: land ownership. All 84 acres—minus some environmentally protected land—of previously occupied government land will transfer to a foundation run by Christiania for a price of 76 million kroner (nearly $13 million). The process has been given the bland bureaucratic name of normalisering (normalization), a word that seems market-tested to stick in the throats of the proudly abnormal Christianites. A team of four staffers at Denmark’s Palaces and Properties Agency, headed by Marija Theiden, will oversee the land purchase. “All parties voted for the agreement,” says Theiden, calling the idea of selling Christiania to the squatters who live there is “one of the most-broad agreements in Danish politics.”

In the end, Christiania was forced to agree with Danish politicians through a combination of sticks (police action, selective bulldozing) and carrots (offers of guaranteed loans and steeply discounted pricing). For a social experiment that was predicated on the idea that private property of any kind was corrupting and immoral, this is a bitter pill. As Fox puts it, “we never wanted to own anything.”

(More on Roads & Kingdoms: Politics and Prayers in Rangoon)

She and others are putting a brave face to the changes by selling Christiania “social shares,” or Folkeaktie—more of a Kickstarter project than an actual stock issuance—to give a communal bent to the purchase. The shares won’t give their owners any special privileges or voting rights. The Christiania collective, not individuals, will control the land. Fox mans the Folkeaktie office by day, and she has helped organize a ten-day Folkeaktie festival ending July 1. It will feature, as one brochure put it, the “best and worst that Christiania has to offer”: big name DJs; an art auction; open houses; and sales of Christiania shares, beer, and (though the Folkeaktie people won’t be involved) the illicit wares of Pusher Street, the open-market hash and marijuana bazaar in the heart of Christiania. When everyone wakes up July 2, the landowners of Christiania will have big questions to answer. Is this really the end of the longest-running collective in modern history? Is it a new beginning?

(More on Roads & Kingdoms: Cusco, Unplanned)

One way that “normalization” might yet be a good thing for Christiania is if it helps Christiania deal with what has so far been its biggest internal threat: the ongoing menace of Pusher Street.

Drugs have always been a part of the colony. Where there are hippies, there will be weed. “The founders needed it to, you know, free their mind a little bit,” says Fox. But Pusher Street today is a glowering challenge to the freethinking mentality of the Christiania founders. Whereas “non-hierarchical” consensus-building defines the rest of the commune, Pusher Street is a highly structured commercial enterprise. Back when Copenhagen Police last cleared out Pusher Street in 2004, their surveillance revealed that the nearly forty vendors of Pusher Street were under the control of biker gangs who protected the franchisees with a highly organized corps of runners and lookouts. They swept the street in a single raid, but a lack of followup action has meant that Pusher Street is back. “The hash trade today is just as open as it was in 2004 and up on the same level. We believe that a billion kroner is sold every year,” a police official told the Danish paper Berlingske recently. It’s not just a problem for Denmark, or its neighbors, who see Christiania as a transit hub for much of the drug traffic coming into Scandinavia; it’s also a problem for Christiania residents. One mark of the fear: residents of Free Town are reluctant to talk about the biker gangs or their business on Pusher Street. “I don’t want problems,” was how one woman put it.

(More on Roads & Kingdoms: Gin and Tonic, A Love Story in Spain)

“People from the organized crime world are taking advantage of Christiania,” says Karsten Lauritzen, a member of parliament from the center-right Venstre party, which had been in power for much of the last decade and had, it should be noted, long tried (and failed) to eliminate Christiania altogether. For Lauritzen, the upcoming land purchase is key to the future resolution of the Pusher Street problem. “Our solution is to normalize [the real estate] on the first of July,” he says, “and then I have a strong belief that the police will be more aggressive.”

For many Christianites, that’s a somewhat chilling plan: get them under state control by making them landowners, and then send in the police to crack down. Residents like Fox (who doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs) would prefer legalization of marijuana and hash (hard drugs haven’t been a big issue in Christiania since they famously kicked out heroin in their “junk blockade” of 1979). Copenhagen’s City Council agrees. In late 2011, they proposed making cannabis legal throughout the city, including Christiania. But Denmark’s Justice Ministry just overruled the plan, and Pusher Street remains stuck in a tense limbo.

(More from Roads & Kingdoms in Denmark: Benny Andersen, Oysterman)

Whatever the outcome of the showdown between police and pushers, Fox says she is at peace the coming land purchase. Her Folkeaktie office has raised only $1.5 million of the whole $13.6 million selling price, but government-backed loans will cover the difference for now. The real lesson, she says, for people inside and outside of the commune, is to accept the new reality, and maybe even embrace. “If Christiania wouldn’t change,” she says, “it wouldn’t be alive.”

This post is in partnership with Roads & Kingdoms, a new journal of food, travel and foreign correspondence. You can read their full Christiania report, with video, here.