Copenhagen’s Freetown of Christiania – Fristaden Christiania – developed on the 7.7 hectare site of the abandoned military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde on the east side of the Inderhavnen, the ‘inner harbour’ of the city. From the early 1970s, homeless people and ‘counter-cultural’ groups began to occupy the abandoned buildings. Christiania soon established its own governance and ethos and developed a well-run infrastructure.
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. 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.
(From an early Christiania ‘mission statement’)
The Freetown gained noteriety because of the famous ‘Pusher Street’, now known as ‘The Green Light District’, where dealers conduct a lucrative trade in cannabis from colourful pop-up stalls. There have been conflicting views among residents regarding the trade since the original ‘democratic’ circulation of cannabis in the 1970s soon gave way to criminal organisation by city gangs. Hard drugs have made inroads to the Freetown but there is a sustained opposition to them. Addicts have always been welcomed into the community but with an ethos of rehabilitation rather than casual tolerance.
Today, Freetown survives, although gentrified to a degree, famous for its top end restaurants and music venues and increasingly under the regulatory systems it once rejected. Many original settlers and idealists are now pensioners. Many have left the settlement. Tourism encroaches greatly, its intrusiveness more the product of organised groups and the city publicity machine than of the independent sector.
No photographs in this piece, alas. Just a couple of scanned pages from my research material. In those days, things were a bit tense between Christiania and the media and there was a strict embargo on camerawork. Photography was definitely not advisable in Pusher Street and taking photographs of residents and their homes was discouraged. However, a huge number of photographs exists today, especially of Christiania’s indigenous graffiti and wall-paintings, and are easily viewed on the internet.
A HASHTAG TALE
I was in the Freetown of Christiania looking for the offices of Ugespejlet, Freetown’s newspaper, the Weekly Mirror. I was there to update Christiania’s listings entry in Lonely Planet’s Denmark guide.
It was mid-afternoon. Things were quiet. I quite liked Christiania when it was quiet. I admired the ethos of Freetown and had met some lovely people there, but I was not fond of the place. I was there to work. Freetown may have been a cultural and political icon but it was a touch claustrophobic for my liking, even in the green spaces of the lakeside area.
The more I explored Christiania the more claustrophobic it became. But, its ethos had integrity and purpose and it had great colour and atmosphere. That Freetown was still going strong after thirty years, with its vibrant cultural and political scene intact, was impressive. It had gone through the fire more than once, weathering drug wars, occasional ugly violence, biker gangs, riots, police raids, and legal struggles against eviction efforts by the authorities.
Directions to the Ugespejlet office were vague. The office was in the narrow Pusher Street where business is done from brightly coloured canopied stalls that line the middle of the street. You take photographs at your peril. Laid out in all their glory are slabs of the world’s best hash and all the paraphernalia aficionados would ever need. If you did not know what you were looking at it could be the WI’s fudge’n candy stall on the village green.
Soon, I located the Ugespejlet office. The door was locked. No; the door was jammed. The door was directly opposite the cannabis stalls. I could lever it open a few inches, but then no further. I called across to the nearest stallholder and asked if the office was open or just half-shut. His response had a certain irony…
‘Keep pushing!’ he yelled.
I kept pushing, until I could get one leg through the opening; then, an arm and a nose; then the rest of me. Behind the door was a tiny space from where steps rose into upper gloom. I could see that a billboard had either fallen down the stairs or been purposely placed to block the door. I heaved the billboard a few inches to the side, squeezed through and clambered upstairs into a huge room that looked as if a perfect storm had blasted through a paper-recycling site.
Tottering piles of folders, old newspapers, books, magazines, posters, envelopes, past copies of the Ugespejle were stacked everywhere. Huge windows smeared with dust and squashed flies shed a dim light on things. In the far corner an enormous table strewn with random papers and books served as a desk. Behind it sat two cheerful young women with enormous smiles. The air was dense with the fog of finest Mary.
‘Are you open?’ I said. ‘If not, I’m sorry. I think I’ve just broken in. The door was blocked.’
‘No, no,’ they chorused. ‘We are always open. A billboard fell down the stairs. We couldn’t be bothered to run down after it. How are you? Sit down! What’s your news?’
BUCKETS OF GIN
These two were Hannah and Birgitte, joint – to say the least – editrices of Ugespejlet. Lovely women. Slightly spaced-out gleam to the eyes, mind you. Hannah and Birgitte were benignly stoned – or possibly normally stoned for Christianiannes. They were also drinking buckets of gin. Immediately, they offered me a massive joint to match their own. I declined. I don’t indulge and besides, clarity of thinking is de rigueur for a journalist in search of data.
I introduced myself, vaguely, as someone who was researching Copenhagen for a magazine article. Always wise to fudge the guidebook writer identity in such circumstances. Christiania was not keen on guidebook writers. Bog standard Journalists were just about OK.
‘Ahh! Good,’ they said; ‘We can tell you everything. Where are you from? You sound Swedish. Your English is nearly as good as ours! No! Wait! You look German. Are you from Berlin?’
Now listen carefully,’ I said; ‘It should be obvious. I’m from Scotland.’
‘Schkotland! Hooray!’ said Hannah. ‘I’ve been to Schkotland. To Edinburgher. Beautiful city. Very cool; very cold; very bloody wet!’
‘Colder and wetter than Denmark,’ said Birgitte. ‘Here, have a smoke!’
Once again, I declined.
‘Have you been to Christiania before?’ said Hannah.
‘Yes, ‘ I said. ‘I love Christiania,’ I lied. Tell me how things are going at the moment? Any trouble with the police? The council? Are things looking good? Anything new happening? How’s the music scene?
COLOUR IN CLOUDS
Hannah and Birgitte could not be stopped. Much of what they told me I already knew, but they added colour in clouds.
When I checked later, my notes seemed to have morphed into a steadily accelerating stream of consciousness. Unsurprising this, given the toxicity of the happy vacuum within which Hannah and Birgitte functioned.
No window had been opened in that room for years. The paper chaos served as a useful buffer to too much circulation of the fast depleting oxygen supply as the pair chain-smoked fatties with abandon. You could get high simply by sniffing the chair backs. Our conversation became more and more hilarious and joyful. Christiania rocked and rolled around us as the light faded and no lights came on.
‘Passive smoking has nothing on this joint’ I said at one point, to roars of laughter all round. This was not in the least funny.
‘You are very very funny, Mr Schkotsman,’ Birgitte said
‘You must have a drink, at least. Have some gin!’ they roared at me through enormous blue megaphones. By this time, I noticed that tiny penguins were rowing about the room on fluffy chunks of cloud just below the ceiling.
I made my excuses, my effusive thanks, and floated back downstairs into the busy mayhem of Pusher Street where smartly dressed young Copenhageners with fat wallets were happily stocking up with blow for the weekend. Outside the gates, their Porsches – and designer pushbikes – were lined up along the dusty edges of Prinsessegade.
I had one more visit to make in the interests of research. This was to Spiseloppen, Christiania’s famous restaurant and a city-wide favourite that shared space with an art gallery and a nightclub. Boss man was Bertil, a tall, lanky Copenhagener who was less a Christianian than a shrewd businessman. We chatted amiably about cuisine and Copenhagen’s fabulous rep in the food stakes, as Bertil busied himself behind a big stainless steel counter organising the evening menu card.
I was leaning one elbow on the counter where rows of pre-prepared salads marched off into the distance. An idle glance sideways eyeballed what was patently a very big bite-sized chunk of best hashish that nestled like a Werther’s Original toffee in the gentle folds of a lettuce leaf on the nearest plate. I wondered about glowing reviews that were likely to surface in Copenhagen’s style journals about the heady delights of Spiseloppen salads. In the UK it’s more likely to be a plump slug in the saladier.
I looked Bertil in the eye and cocked a finger at the plat de puff.
‘Is that normal garnish on a Christianian salad..?’
‘Auld de kift!‘ he said cursingly and scooped up the chunk with a pained look. ‘How did that get there? My sodding staff these days!’
Later, I wandered off through the gates of Christiania, past the polished Porsches, and the pushbikes, into the relatively oxygen-rich air of wider Copenhagen and across the Borsgade Bridge, both my feet firmly on the ground. Or at least I think they were…
THERE ARE RULES…AND THEN THERE IS ‘GUIDANCE’…