“The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being 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.”
So reads the mission statement of Freetown Christiania, a commune located within a borough of the Danish capital Copenhagen. Built on the tenets of individual responsibility and communal harmony, Christiania is best known as Denmark’s ‘hippie-haven’, a place where cannabis is openly sold and consumed, where drum circles and open-air jam sessions can always be found, and where people who’ve had enough of mainstream society can find a place to exist. But all’s not well in Freetown today as it finds its way of life threatened by bureaucracy, gentrification, and tourism.
Established on the former military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde, Christiania came into being, as the story goes, in 1971 when families from surrounding areas broke down a fence of an unused area of the compound as a playground for their children. From then on, the takeover became a movement in response to a purported lack of affordable housing in the country. Within the year the mission statement was drafted and the ‘Forbidden City of the Military’ became a haven for hippies, squatters, anarchists, and anyone who, discontented with life in the Danish mainstream, sought refuge outside the system.
Even as state control was rejected, rules were put in place to ensure communal harmony. Violence was outlawed, as was theft, weapons, biker’s colours, and hard drugs. Even the cannabis trade is restricted to the central Pusher Street, where marijuana is still sold at pop-up stalls. Even so, drug addicts and others who felt overwhelmed and alienated from society were welcomed and a happy form of self governance was fostered. Christiania was a social experiment; the reimagining of life outside the control of the authoritarian government of the day. But as time went on, the rejection of authoritarian control that was the embodiment of Christiania began to lose its teeth.
The first step towards this was in 2004 when Christianites began paying taxes and fees for water, electricity, garbage disposal, and other amenities to the Danish defense ministry, which owned the land. Subsequent years saw violence and run-ins with the police, and so began the decline of the anarchist ideal.
Land Reforms: Before 2011, Christianites paid ‘rent’ into a communal treasury which facilitated the communes self-sustaining economy through non-drug employment, such as their pubs and eateries, theatre groups and yoga classes, and the like. 2011 saw the establishment of the Christiania Foundation through which the residents would purchase the land from the government at a reduced rate, giving them official ownership of the land. The foundation is run by a board of directors rather than communal gatherings, and has been undertaking various reconstruction and restoration projects to transform the erstwhile military barracks into locations for restaurants and other new businesses. Gentrification was firmly under way.
To pay for the projects, rent prices have hiked up, causing many of Christiania’s oldest occupants to abandon the commune. Moreover, Christiania is now the fourth-largest tourist attraction in Denmark. The constant influx of tourists to see Freetown takes away from its anarchist essence. The commune of under a thousand residents is now catering to over 500,000 tourists annually, a consequence of which is heightened attention and control from governmental and civic authorities. The strong-willed independence that came from the discontent of the founders of Christiania seems to be fading in the 21st century.
The very existence of a commune like Christiania today is remarkable, nestled within a city like Copenhagen nonetheless. But the crudely constructed caravans amid overgrown thickets of brush are giving way to tastefully decorated campers, and a population that is firmly middle class. Communal decision making has given way to bureaucracy, self-sustenance to gentrification, and the discontent that came in response to authoritarian control has been subsumed within the system it rebelled against. The untouchable Freetown where hippies and anarchists lived outside the framework of mainstream society, is no more.