The days are getting dramatically shorter (about 10 minutes each day) and it is dark by the time I get home from work. Rather than grumble about it, I figure I will make use of the opportunity and get back to my blog.
Oh where, oh where to begin! There was the trip to Paris and Normandy, “Culturnatten”, not to mention further exploration of Copenhagen and the surrounding area when my parents visited. Given that I need several posts to cover our trip to Paris and Normandy, I think I’ll return my attention to Copenhagen and write a post about…Christiania.
Anyone who has been to Copenhagen is no doubt amazed that I have managed to go nine months without mentioning Christiania. Any conservative will be horrified to learn that there is a location in central Copenhagen where drugs (albeit soft) are sold freely.
Christiania is as impressive as it is un-impressive. Yes, there are drugs for sale on “Pusher Street”. Yes, your camera may be smashed if you take pictures on the aforementioned street (the sign of a camera with a slash through it means NO PICTURES!). But the mere fact that such a community exists in such a peaceful, self-policing manner is what makes the district so unique. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself…
Freetown Christiania (Fristaden Christiania in Danish) was formed in 1971 when local residents entered the grounds of an abandoned military base in the picturesque Christianshavn district of Copenhagen. Although ostensibly to expand their children’s play area, the incursion was in large part due to a lack of affordable housing. Within weeks of taking over the base, the residents declared the area a free state and wrote the following mission statement.
“The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for 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.”
While somewhat idealistic, this socialist approach fostered a collectivist, hippy movement which is still alive and well today. Everyone is accepted, from parents with toddlers to drug addicts unable to function in regular society. Soft drugs such as hash, cannabis and marijuana are freely available but there is a strict policy against harder drugs. This laissez-faire approach fosters creativity, resulting in a vibrant music and arts scene as well as a strong entrepreneurial spirit. There are frequent indie concerts and grunge bands and the district is famous for its Christiania cargo bikes (or “bucket o’ kids” as they are sometimes called).
The district is idyllic in many ways. Situated along an old moat and ramparts which protect the southern flank of the city, the area has been largely left in its natural state. Although somewhat rundown, many of the buildings have quirky designs and are well-maintained. Public safety is a non-issue with many families bringing their children on the weekend. In fact, many children grow up in Christiania and the district has a daycare of its own.
Despite its liberal approach, there is no stigma associated with Christiania. Indeed, many people consider the district somewhat of an ongoing social experiment and at least one former government minster grew up in the area. The Danish government is somewhat less enthusiastic although largely just as tolerant as it finds itself in an uncomfortable juxtaposition. On the one hand, it loses significant tax revenues from people which have been essentially squatting on government land for almost 40 years while on the other hand, the district has become one of the country’s greatest tourist attractions.
Trying to walk a tight line, the government put forward an ultimatum earlier this year that residents would either have to purchase the land or give it up. Although the price tag is high, it is significantly below market price and the residents have been given several years to raise the funds. Following the ultimatum, Christiania closed for several days last April for residents to hold a plebiscite on what to do. In the end, they agreed to purchase the district. They recently initiated a campaign known as “I Support Christiania” (Jeg Støtter Christiania) but it remains unclear how they will raise sufficient funds.
All in all, the area is a great place to visit and forces one to think outside the box when it comes to social development. Although I am strongly against the use of drugs, sequestration and open tolerance of soft drugs in Christiania has dramatically reduced (although not eliminated) drug use and violence in other parts of the city. Furthermore, people are very friendly and there is a tremendous pride in being a Christiania resident. Indeed, people often wait decades for the opportunity to have a home in the district. The following link provides more detailed information about Christiania. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freetown_Christiania