The story of Freetown Christiania does, in some ways, seem like a fairy tale… a druggy, twisted, modern-day fairy tale at that, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
Upon entering Christiania, Denmark, situated right in the heart of Copenhagen, a carved sign reads: You Are Now Leaving the European Union.
Free town Christiania is a place unto itself. It has its own unique currency, flag, system of transport, rules and government, post office, and restaurants and stores.
Christiania occupies some of the most valuable real estate in Copenhagen, but the residents of this micronation recently bought all 85 acres of land from the Danish government through collective shares owned by the community as a whole. They paid €13 million for it, although the entire package of land is estimated to be worth around €166 million.
This is a pedestrian “city,” if one can call it that. No cars are allowed inside the parameters. If you live here and own one, it must be kept elsewhere.
The atmosphere is an odd one– the setting of a Hans Christian Anderson tale rolled up with Woodstock, New York in the 70’s.
Depending on who you ask, the three yellow circles in the Christiania flag either represent three ‘O’s in love, love, love, or the dots above the three ‘i’s in Christiania.
The two pictures below were taken in 1975, but could have very well be current for all that has changed in terms of Christiania’s aesthetic.
Many of the walls of the houses are covered in street art.
“Freetown,” as the locals refer to it, was just an abandoned military base, which squatters began using as their communal dwelling in 1971. Originally, the inhabitants were anarchists, but that approach eventually gave way to the self-governance applied by the community today.
Nowadays, Christiania has about 1000 full time residents. About 250 of those are children, who attend “normal” school.
Forty percent of the adult residents work inside Freetown, while another 40% work outside the “city”. The rest don’t hold what most people think of as a “conventional” job.
The town’s mission statement declares that “the objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community.”
As a result, Christiania is a free-spirited melting pot of houses made from scratch, hole-in-the-wall organic eateries, ateliers. The town overflows with wall-art and music every where you turn.
So You Want to Join In?
How exactly does one get a place in this eccentric community where no houses ever go up for sale and no one has private ownership over anything?
That’s right. You can’t own a house in Christiania. Each property is owned collectively by the community.
If you would like to move there, one first submits an application and is hopefully then assigned somewhere to live (and hopefully it’s one of the lakeside properties).
“When a dwelling becomes vacant, it is announced in the Christiania weekly “Ugespejlet”. Applicants are invited to a talk with the residents of the area in question, and those deemed most suitable for the vacant rooms are chosen. But with one important difference: There is no question of payment for a share, and no money under the table in Christiania, so you don’t need a fortune to move in.”
Jump into the spirit of communal living–Leave something old and take something “new.”
Who are the Lucky Few?
Everyone is welcome in Christiania, although not all at the same time. It`s quite hard to find an available living quarter. With limited space and so many people eager to move in, some people take rather unconventional (no surprise there) approaches when securing a spot.
As one resident, Ane, recalls, “I got here at one point in winter and asked whether I could live in a hut somewhere at the East of the terrain. I was allowed to stay there for half a year and then had the luck that somebody moved houses. I was then allowed to take theirs. Christiania is a great place to live. I would have a hard time moving back to `normal` society again. People in Christiania all know each other. They may not always like each other, but they know each other. Whenever I visit friends outside Christiania, I am always surprised that they don’t know anything about the people living next door to them. They don’t greet each other like we do. They don’t care about each other like we do. An important part of why Christiania is such a nice place to live is that the people who live here deliberately chose to live here. I guess they are more conscious and a lot more motivated than people in the rest of Denmark. The fact that the state doesn’t want us here gives an additional sense of unity. Keeping our autonomous status requires a lot of effort of all of us.”
The feeling of being part of a persecuted minority threatened by the state is a common one in Christiania. In the official self-published guide to Christiania, available on the Christiania website, they explicitly state, about the Danish government: “There is no doubt – they want to kill Christiania.”
Freedom for All or Free-for-all?
Christiania’s rules are few but “unbreakable”– “No to hard drugs, rocker badges, weapons and violence. And no cars.”
As another resident explains, “Christiania itself is considered un-political, but most of the inhabitants would find themselves on the left side of the political spectrum: Pro-social values and contra-capitalism. We are also against authority, which explains why we have no bosses: not in our shops, not in our workshops and not for Christiania as a whole. Everything is agreed upon by compromise.”
The compromises are reached through various community meetings; some are for all residents, some are broken down by topic, or domain.
Recycling is no joke here either, and “garbage sorting” merits its own section in the guide: “Throw your refuse in the garbage barrels, and use the right barrel: compost, bottles, paper, cardboard, inflammable waste and garbage.”
“Christiania is a green, traffic-free city with paths, gravel roads and large water areas. So when you use the area, you must not worry about becoming a little wet and muddy. Many even find the lack of street-lighting a distinct advantage – the stars appear so much brighter at night. ”
This dwelling wouldn’t make a bad spot for star gazing.
Opinions about Christiania are endlessly divided. Danish press and the Danish state are very negative, usually associating it with anarchy and lawlessness. But at the same time, Danish primary schools from all over the country take their pupils here to teach them about alternative ways of living.
One aspect of the “alternative” living style is the fact that a main source of revenue in Christiania comes directly from its hash and marijuana trade, which is illegal in Denmark, but tolerated off-and-on in Christiania. Pusher street is where all the drug trade happens, and photographs are strictly prohibited in that entire area. Phones have even been nailed to walls to prove the point that what happens there remains there.
The government normally turns a blind eye to the drug sales, except during the random drug raids. That’s why no running is allowed in Christiania– it sends out the false alarm of a police raid!
Drugs and Pusher street aside, Christiania certainly does look very charming and could easily be mistaken as the location for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
A common myth about the community is that “Christiania is not open to all.” The website responds that “Christiania is more open than the rest of Copenhagen…Footpaths and roads are so close to the houses that most of the time looking directly into people’s living rooms when you walk around.”
“You can walk everywhere, and will usually only be commented if you do not comply with the general ethics, such as “do not go right up to the windows and stare into them,” or “do not come with comments on people’s clothes”, and so on.
Sounds pretty fair to me…
Faces of Christiania
A few years ago, Charlotte Oestervang, a photographer native to Christiania, displayed her artwork in the center of Copenhagen. She was given space outside, right near the main Danish government buildings, the same buildings inside which the fate of Christiania had been (and continues to be) debated from time to time.
Her portraits capture various residents of Christiania in their raw, natural state. After taking each photograph, she later returned to the subject and spoke to them, putting together a brief statement to accompany each picture. Together, they give a small glimpse into just a handful of the characters that make up Freetown.
Kim Larsen is homeless and hangs out in Christiania. He often gives a hand at the local bar.
Punker Dennis is a cook at the vegetable store downtown Christiania. Inge, the Panda lives in the Cosmic Flower. When Inge was 17 years old she ran away and became a maid for Margaret Thatcher. Inge is also a tailor inspired by Japanese design.
The Woodtroll Niels lives on the Rabbit Mountain in an old military shed where he has put up a sign saying he is looking for a wife. Niels is keeping the area around the vegetable store clean.
Don Corleone is from Qutdligssat in Greenland, but his body and soul lives in Christiania. He is believed to be a reincarnation of Alexander the Great. Don Corleone is longing for his past which is why his roar is often heard throughout Pusher Street.
Ditte and Frederikke on Freetown Christianias 35th. birthday.
No one, except maybe the inhabitants themselves (and many of them had their doubts as well), ever, ever thought Christiania would last this long…
Take one last good, long look around, before you leave this crazy kingdom and re-enter the European Union.
About this Contributor
Wallace Kalkin is currently a student at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City, but escapes to Paris any chance she can get. She loves exploring, reading, and people watching. Her mother still has to tell her to stop staring.
You can contact her through email: firstname.lastname@example.org