The Social Experiment
03/27/2014 - 03/27/2014 50 °F
I’m currently sitting in an open plaza or square in the middle of Christiania, a unique community in the northeastern part of Copenhagen. I’m surrounded by people sitting on picnic benches playing backgammon (all the cafes seem to have sets to borrow and play with) and having beers, or spliffs, or just laughs with friends. I wanted to jot down my thoughts while they were fresh and ongoing.
I’m not sure what it’s technical, official status of Christiania is, but essentially this is a small independent community that is owned, run by, policed by, and inhabited by its residents. This place is incredibly unique and interesting, unlike anything that I’ve seen or heard of anywhere else. The residents see this as a separate state, as evidenced by the backside of the arch (You are now entering the EU):
While known for “Pusher Street” and the place to buy weed almost legally in Copenhagen, the community is much more than that. I’ll get back to that part, but I think the spirit of it is best described in its original mission statement (grabbed off Wikipedia):
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.
Visiting Christiania and walking around, it seems to be an incredibly peaceful, friendly, and more than a little “out there” place. Once an old Danish naval facility of barracks and manufacturing buildings, it has been transformed into a self-governed community that exists outside the laws and conventions of normal society. I’m not sure if they have elected officials or official positions, but the monthly “Christiania meetings” are the highest authority.
Going back to Pusher Street, it definitely is a key feature of Christiania. The dealers (only hash and grass) setup under tents with little cammo-like sheets in front of the entrance. You go in and the goods are right out there, usually on a stand that can close up if any cops decide to roll thru. They have a few rules in that part of Christiania. I found the 2nd one funny.
Visually, it is quite interesting and different, though not to an extreme degree. I’ve passed houses with floors or outcroppings added on over time (reminiscent of the Weasley house in HP). I’ve gone thru small skate parks both inside and outside of buildings, playgrounds with mostly hand-built equipment, and restaurants setup in temporary-seeming tents.
There are cafes and restaurants that have home-cooked dishes out on the counter for sale and display. There are lots of dogs and most roam without leashes. Tons of fantastic graffiti/art (see below) While most people here (outside of the tourists) would fit your stereotypical impression of grungy drifters or hippie granola-heads, that by no means makes up everyone. I’ve also seen very well-to-do Danes in trendy clothes wandering the streets and enjoying the atmosphere. Since it is such a small community, most people seem to know each other, and greet each other as friends and family. I keep saying community - I can’t help it because it is a word that seems to describe this area very well.
I found it interesting enough that I read up a bit on it, and visited its official website. The role that the official Copenhagen and Danish government has played has varied over time, but for the most part, since 1971 it has been independently governed by the residents. Many people might think that this means NO RULES, but that would be very wrong. They certainly seem to have less rules and restrictions, but the residents do establish rules or customs to ensure a continued peaceful atmosphere. The rules forbid stealing, violence, guns, knives, bulletproof vests, hard drugs, biker colors, and other things that may affect the living conditions of those around you, and they do require a tax be paid to sustain some of the community functions. If a person or group is breaking these rules, or causing problems, most of the time the residents decide on how to deal with it internally and enforce that decision.
My favorite story that I read about this was the ‘Junk Blockade’ in 1979. Because of the status of the community, ”hard drugs” were permissible in the 70s. However, after 10 overdose-related deaths in 1978-1979, the residents decided that they had to be banned. Initially, they tried to work with Copenhagen police to clear out the dealers, but the police betrayed them by focusing mostly on the hash network, and giving the names of “cooperating Christianites” to the hard drug dealers. Many of them had to leave Christiania for fear of reprisals. After that betrayal, the citizens decided to cease working with the authorities and began what came to be known as the ‘Junk Blockade’. For 40 days and 40 nights, Christianites (men, women, and children) patrolled the area. Any junkie or drug dealer that was encountered was given an ultimatum - quit all hard drug activities or leave Christiania. Eventually the dealers were forced to leave and 60 drug users entered rehab.
Reading reviews on TripAdvisors about it, Christiania seems to be a divisive place, at least to outsiders. A third of the reviews were terrible and described it as dirty, unsafe, or godless. As far as dirty goes - what were you expecting? I can see how people commented that, but I didn’t see it as dirty. It seemed disorganized, with piles of clutter around to be sure, but the conditions inside cafes and thru the general streets were fine. I can’t speak to the safety of it at night, but during the day I don’t know how you could have felt unsafe. As far as “godless”, you are free to disagree with some or all of their rules, but they decide it themselves and seem to do it with the community’s health and sanity in mind, not just their pocketbooks.
My advice - Check it out, see for yourself and decide what you think. The Danish government officially called Christiania “The Social Experiment”. They are going on 40+ years by now and the experiment continues