Nothing Like Christiania

It is one of those places I’ve heard about since I don’t know how long… the famed freetown Christiania. An autonomous area in the heart of Copenhagen. People used to talk about how people there lived differently; built their own houses. More communal living. Ran things their way. Were free of the trends and many of the expectations of the outside world. At some point, in my mind, it became a legend. “One day”, I thought to myself, “I will go to Christiania and see for myself.”

And so that day finally came. I found myself at last in Copenhagen and sure enough, wasted little time in getting over there.

At first I wasn’t sure what the entrance would look like. A building perhaps. No an archway with a sign, almost like disneyland minus the ridiculous consumer culture and talking mouse. With a arial map burned into my head, and a few cafe’s, bikeshops, and galleries as points of reference, I knew once I was in, I would figure it out. So as we approached the initial path, the bright colors of graphitti tags and distinct shadeyness of the guys standing around the path led me to conclude this was the place – be not afraid.

As I walked I enjoyed the visual of the dirt covered path, turned slightly muddy by the rain. Every few meters the official red flag with the three yellow dots in a window or a sign. A few meters further, a whole stand selling all manner of gear with that same logo. No shock of course, as someone would later tell me, Christiania is the second most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen.

The sign behind me, leading out of the community, reads “Now Entering the EU”, a hilarious site and a reminder that this place plays by different rules and different values. The EU should have sent a delegation to meet Christiania’s representatives long ago, they might have learned something about participation and civics…. to take back to Brussels.

As a videoblogger and podcaster I’m surprised and slightly annoyed at the constant signs to not take pictures. Almost out of principle I took pictures whenever I was alone. Admittedly I never asked why the rule exists, but truthfully in the year 2008 and the era of citizen powered media, Christianians should be proud and confident that there are many visitors who take pictures in hopes of inspiring the world, and showing that there is another way. Then again, as a visitor, there are many things I didn’t realize about this place, and many other factors that probably created the somewhat suspicious feeling I couldn’t shake as a journalist among a people who’s way of life is, in many ways in danger of extinction.

LEaving christiania

Fast forward to the Gallery. After a delicious vegetarian meal in hands down the coziest place I’ve ever eaten in Scandinavia, I eventually ended up at the gallery opening that a kind person at Christiania.org had invited me to. She had told me to go there, and I will surely meet people to whom I can ask questions.

As I walked up the stairs and smelled that familiar concert venue stench, it reminded me of all the shows at the dark and revered Stone Pony in Asbury Park. At the top of the stairs, a door led to a warm and comfy gallery, where several people had gathered to see the lively paintings, meet the very good looking artist, and partake in the cake, drinks, and atmosphere. After glancing at everyone, and asking around , I eventually was able to find a group of Christianians who I might be able to interview for a podcast. I inched my way towards they table, careful to not interrupt the animated discussion over 3d art, number patterns, and what I suspect were conspiracy theories. To my surprise these seasoned veterans were not the least bit thrown off by the fact that I sat down at their table. It was almost as if that is normal in this community… you’re welcome at the table, whoever you are.

When I saw the chance, I introduced myself, and asked for an interview. Of course not everyone was up for it, this time not for reasons of suspicion about who I am, but more out of, what they described as, fatigue.. of telling the story of Christiania and describing the current situation which calls into question what will become of this place in the coming years. Kindly, they pointed across the table to a quiet gentlemen who they labelled as very happy to talk. I was surprised as he seemed the quietest and most mysterious with his long coat and fedora hat. But again, never judge too quickly, especially not here, because what followed was an interview conversation that we both enjoyed and I will not soon forget.

The details of this conversation, you’ll hear in a forthcoming podcast later this week. Eventually it did come to an end, and I thanked the man and we wished each other an excellent life, though I suspect we will meet again. Another slice of cake, a quick purchase of a poster from a Christiania artist, and off we went. In the dark I tried to look back and take another mental picture of this unique place. Too dark. I walked away telling my friend all the details of this enlightening conversation.. all of a sudden I thought of myself as some kind of Christiania expert. Off to other place to tell the tales to other people, many of whom will do just as I did.. come to see this very special place for themselves.

Thanks Christianians. Pardon the pictures and until we meet again.

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2 thoughts on “Nothing Like Christiania

  • March 3, 2008 at 5:22 pm
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    I never got to Christiania – I mean I was living in Amsterdam so I wasn’t like I was in need of a place that chose to do things differently. But I’ve had friends visit and have some understanding of it’s independence.

    “Christianians should be proud and confident that there are many visitors who take pictures in hopes of inspiring the world, and showing that there is another way”

    I don’t know dude I’ve never been but it seems that it seems like the folks that live there are doing their best to “get off the grid” simply they’re trying to live their life as their see fit and I think a large part of that included not giving a shit about trying to inspire the rest world. That kind of grand global scheming (whatever the cause) is what drove them to live in a place like Christiania.

  • March 4, 2008 at 1:41 am
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    hi mark

    thanks for your report – i look forward to hearing your podcast. i live in christiania, and just want to clarify the reason for and extent of the ‘no photo’ policy.

    the no-photo policy was adopted by pusher street when the danish government decided to go zero-tolerance on cannabis. this has lead to a higher-risk environment for the pushers, who are anxious not to get caught on camera, as the police occasionally has confiscated cameras from our guests. the no-photo policy is disputed within christiania, but it is enforced and fortunately only applies to a small area close to the entrance called pusher street, the area wherein the sale of cannabis products is tolerated.

    in the rest of christiania photography is no problem, as long as normal polite conduct and respect for privacy is observed = you ask people nicely.

    christiania covers 85 acres, so there’s much more to the place than pusher street. and a beautiful lakeside, with a distinct blend of 17th century military historical ramparts, dotted with modest and invenitve selfmade houses.

    heres a bit of history about the pusher street model – following harsh troubles with hard drugs, esp. heroin, in the end seventies, beginning eighties, the hard drug pushers were kicked out by the community and the addicts helped to rehab. the police would not collaborate, and as such the civic action had to be made.

    after this struggle it was decided to never let hard drugs into the community again, and to start a strict destinction between hard and soft drugs.

    and at the same time it was decided to tolerate the sale of cannabis within a small designated area, called pusher street. christiania wanted to live with a model, that enabled transperancy and social control, keeping activities visible. pusher street is tolerated under a number of conditions:

    – to assure a minimun of resposibility for the commune the pushers are required to live in christiania. outside pushers are not welcome as they have a tendency not to care much about the community.

    – the pushers had to help in keeping out hard drugs from christianaia.

    The economic model for the Christiania community is special. As there is no private property, money does not play as big a role as elsewhere. everyone pays the same to live in the community, and no houses or dwellings are traded. Improvements are investments in christiania, that cannot be capitalised by individuals.

    This has the added benefit that the role of cash is diminished as much as possible, letting people of all trades and means live door to door, without having to worry about real estate going down, but instead letting a focus on trying to solve challenges socially and let more important merits than capital govern how we live.

    As a last sidenote, the effect of the zero-tolerance on soft drugs since 2004 has not lead to a reduction in consumtion of cannabis, according to the copenhagen police, the cannabis market has been underground, and the market is now diffused in the rest of the city, where cannabis is now sold obscurely along with harder drugs. Another disturbing sideeffect of the zerotolerance is that the market environment has been hardened and brutalised, since the risk has increased significantly for the pushers involved. Quality has gone down, and prices up.

    The model enacted openly by Christiania for more than 10 years could have mitigated some of these issues, had it been adopted more widely by other cities. Instead the trade concetrated in Christiania as consumers from outside decided to delegate the responsibility for the cannabis market to Christiania instead of trying to solve the criminalisation locally within their own communites.

    Thanks again for the report.

    best / ole

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