Situated within the city of Copenhagen, Christiania is self-governing—it has its own administrators, rules, and currency. It even has its own flag and means of transport!
Covering over 30 hectares, this city within a city is a haven for almost a thousand people who live and work there.
Christianshavn, the district where Christiania is located, used to be a separate city in the 1600s. The military barracks was located there, as well as some ramparts used as a defence against the conquering Swedes.
The four gunpowder storehouses—now named Aircondition, Autogena, Fakirskolen, and Kosmiske Blomst are now converted into residences. When you look closely, you can still see the vertical holes (now filled up) where soldiers used to shoot enemies.
A group of hippies settled in Christiania in 1971, seeing it as their last bastion for independence. Since then, it has grown to its current number of 850 residents, and it has its own post office, administration building, general merchandise, restaurants, and other shops.
No new residential houses are allowed to be built inside the commune; new residents are accepted only when units become available.
When I was there, I saw a couple asking around if there was a unit available to let, but they, like the others before them, were turned down. Indeed, if you were lucky enough to secure an apartment in Christiania, why would you want to leave?
It’s called Copenhagen’s “green lung” for a very good reason: it’s green and traffic-free, a refuge for animals tame and wild.
My friend Nis Jensen, a member of the Danish Vietnamese Association which my organization (Stairway Foundation) worked with in training social development workers in Vietnam, was one of the pioneering residents of Christiania.
His apartment unit was part of a beautiful yellow house deep inside the community. Nis told me that he regularly spotted birds of prey in front of this apartment. One time, he was witness to the successful hunting of a pigeon by a hawk. Indeed, where else in Copenhagen would you be able to see that?
According to the Christiania Guide (2011), Christiania uses a consensus democracy where every resident participates in the decision-making process. One group called the Faellesmodet is in charge of all matters concerning Christiania as a whole, including the handling of the collective funds.
Christiania is divided into 14 geographical areas, and each area has an administrative person in charge of financial matters pertinent to that area as well as planning and holding meetings among the residents there.
Once a month, all 14 treasurers meet and discuss the economy and plans of their respective areas. There’s also a Contact Group comprising representatives of the 14 areas who serve as a liaison of Christiania and the state, among other tasks.
I wouldn’t have known of Christiania if I hadn’t met Nis. Despite the cold (it was still winter when I came to visit), he took me around, and I really appreciated it. After all, most tourists only get to see a fraction of the place. Nis—aside from acting as my tour guide—gave me a firsthand perspective of what it’s like to live in Christiania.
They have an area, for example, where people can just leave things they don’t use anymore. Anyone can take anything there. They also have a restaurant, the first floor of which was a museum.
Every single inch of the interior of the restaurant building was covered with graffiti, very similar to Kunsthaus Tacheles, the art center in Berlin. The food was very good though, and the ambiance was indeed cozy. Nis, as expected, knew a lot of people there.
What’s remarkable about Christiania are its houses and buildings. Most are designed and built by the residents themselves.
There were quite a lot that were beautifully made, while others resembled nothing more than trailers. I’ll have another post later on the houses there. A lot of them are really interesting!
One thing that made Christiania a bit controversial is Pusher Street, its Green Light District, where the buying and selling of dope is allowed. While hard drugs are illegal, residents have been concerned that Pusher Street is already being used by the organized crime world.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take pictures of all the dope being sold on the street. Taking photographs was strictly not allowed there. I was even asked to cover my lens.
The street was quite a surprise actually. There were a lot of muscled bouncers there enforcing the no-photography rule, and it gave a totally different vibe from the rest of the community.
The future of Christiania was once uncertain. The Danish government had wanted to get the land back and convert the commune into high-end apartment blocks (yikes!), a process they called normalisation. Christiania, after all, occupies prime real estate, and there were identified problems with drug dealing inside.
Fortunately for the residents, after decades of battle, the government finally allowed them to buy the land and buildings for US$13 million. Christiania, then, will continue to enjoy being autonomous, and its residents will continue to enjoy the freedom of living there.
There are four unbreakable rules in Christiania: no hard drugs, no rocket badges, no weapons, and no violence. It’s no wonder then why residents of Christiania are so fiercely protective of their community. It is their haven and refuge, and something that an outsider like me can only wish to have!
Check out this interesting piece on Christiania: Christiania for Sale.
What do you think of Christiania? Would you want to live there?