Published on 30 January, 2016 in The Hindu Business Line – BLink
Forty-four years after its conception, ‘free town’ Christiania, with its anarchic attitude, continues to exist rather peacefully in Copenhagen
Every year since 2007, the British lifestyle magazine Monocle has brought out a list of the 25 most liveable cities in the world. The study is based on a variety of factors such as the quality of living conditions, architecture, public transport, environmental issues, medical care, and so on. Copenhagen, with its green and sustainable lifestyle, award-winning architecture, and meticulous city planning, has predictably topped the list for 2008, 2013 and 2014 respectively.
On the face of it, the Danish capital seems to have a rhythm of its own. There’s an unspoken and reciprocal respect for pedestrians and cyclists. The Danes seem content and carefree, and they go about their lives pretty simply. It’s almost impossible to nitpick the Danish way of life. But then there’s Christiania, the controversial ‘free town’ that exists contrarily within the controlled existence of Copenhagen, and I wonder if Christiania too has had a role to play in upping the rank of Copenhagen to match the urbane estimates of Monocle’s survey of the world’s most liveable cities.
The anarchic enclave of Christiania was founded by a group of squatters and hippies in 1971. They took over an abandoned military village, about 84 acres in all, and set up their own community — one that was free and unbound by any governmental rules or regulations. They made their own laws, flew their own flag (a red banner with three yellow dots, representing the three ‘I’s in Christiania), built their own homes using old army barracks, and made their own currency (which is no longer in use; they now accept Danish krone). They didn’t want to be part of the city in any way; they wanted to keep distance from the glare of lawful Danish institutions and wished an alternative way of living. They had their way then and they’re going strong even today with about a thousand residents forming the core community, while several others live in the hope of being included in the commune someday.
In its 44th year, Christiania is a car-free zone. One could choose to walk, cycle, or ride a horse. I pack my camera and phone in a rucksack and enter the main gate, which opens directly into the infamous Pusher Street. A refreshingly green cannabis plant grows in a flowerpot kept on the side of the entrance. A sweet, almost fruity fragrance of weed hangs in the air. The street is flanked by makeshift booths, each of them stocked with different versions of hashish. The other thing common among the booths are the masked, bouncer-like men guarding them. Inside, other men sell, buy, smoke, or roll joints. Every wall is adorned with a mural or graffiti. I see colour, I sense controversy. It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time. Sale of drugs is not legal, yet they’re bought and consumed openly, and perhaps that’s the beauty of Christiania. Police visits are also frequent. There’s temporary furore, fines are paid, people are arrested, and then life goes back to normal.
“Christiania is open for everybody, but not everybody can come in, become a part of the community and live here,” says Martha, who became a resident nine years ago and now works at Grønsagen, an organic fruits and vegetable market-cum-café across Pusher Street. She came to Denmark 18 years ago from Peru and fell in love with a man who belonged to the community. “It was easy for me as I married into the community. I didn’t choose Christiania, it was destiny,” she says.
Over the years, Christianites have learned to co-exist more naturally with the ways of the Danish government. They pay for electricity and water, along with an annual rent, and are now an integrated part of Copenhagen. And why not — it is, after all, the second-most visited attraction in Copenhagen after Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid.
They have also found new and smart ways of sustaining themselves — selling stocks of Christiania to outsiders, organising guided tours, hosting music festivals, et al.
Their autonomous approach to life also makes them an innovative bunch. Case in point is the Christiania Cargo Bike, which was invented in 1984 by blacksmith and resident Lars Engstrom as a birthday gift for his wife Annie Lerche, to haul their young kids in and around the commune. It is an award-winning Danish design classic and is a success all over the world.
The citizens of Christiania believe in having room for everyone. Their collective ability to support social freedom is marvellous, and perhaps that is why people are desperate to be a part of it even today. But sadly, there is no such thing as an application for membership. “The difficult way is to work a lot here, say for three, four or even five years. Slowly people start seeing you every day, they start getting to know you. But there are people who stay on for years and still don’t find a house. One has really got to push. There’s no waiting list and it’s only the consensus of the thousand-odd Christianites that matters over whom to include in the community,” explains Martha.
The lake is a short walk from Pusher Street. There are fewer people here. The silence and solitude is mesmerising. As I stroll along the marijuana-scented tracks, I find canoodling couples and youngsters setting up barbecues, each of them smoking thick joints. They’re outsiders who’ve come to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake. The people of Christiania are, however, a mix of Europeans, Americans and Latin Americans, most of whom were part of hippie and rebel movements in other countries. There was a man from India too who, Martha says, died this year — a musician who set up a Jimi Hendrix band and sang his songs. And now, she says, there is an Indian woman named Radha who sells trinkets in the market.
There are no IDs or stamp papers to prove you’re part of Christiania. It’s a small community and everyone knows everyone. There was only one day in the history of its existence when Christiania was closed to outsiders. The situation, however, says Martha wasn’t as tense before 2002 as it is now. “The government takes Pusher Street as a peg to attack our community, which is wrong. There’s a law in Christiania that anyone who sells hash has to live here, but the big bosses don’t live here anymore. The junkies are not a part of Christiania; they come here only for business. They know nothing about the history of Christiania and they don’t respect our ways. We’re working on ways to co-exist with them and even legalise the selling of drugs. But it’s not so easy because Scandinavian countries are very conservative by nature.”
Almost every community in the world is bound by some faith, belief or following, and it’s only a matter of time that they falter, owing to disharmony and disagreement. Auroville is still in full-swing, but it is inclined towards spiritualism. The no-strings-attached freedom that Christiania promises is, frankly, nowhere to be seen. There’s no belief system, there is no leader and there are no followers. It is an anarchist community, but can there be harmony in anarchy?
Martha gives us a knowing smile as she gets up to bring us her favourite carrot, orange and ginger juice, “There have been episodes of violence, but it’s incomparable with other European countries like Spain, which is known for much more violence. As per European standards, we are a peaceful bunch.”