It’s hard to imagine that there are still places in the world where normative societal rules don’t apply and where people simply get on with the business of living. To find one smack centre in the middle of a city like Copenhagen is a little gobsmacking. Christianshaven, or Fristaden Christiania, was founded 40 years ago by a group of hippies choosing to live an alternative lifestyle. Its 22 hectares are on the site of an old barracks just down the road from the famous Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of our Saviour). Almost 1000 people live here and are fighting to keep their homes and their independence. It’s Europe’s most famous squat and, given its prime location in the centre of the city, it’s no surprise that property developers have been itching to get their hands on the property for years.
While you can buy cannabis and hash on the rather aptly named Pusher street, the community enforces strict bans on guns, hard drugs, and insignias on leather jackets – biker clubs not welcome apparently! [Guide books warn the not-so-savvy tourists to avoid taking photos on this street!] The ‘city limits’ are quite clearly marked so there’s no excuse for not knowing you’ve stumbled into some place special.
Time wasn’t on my side so I didn’t venture very far into the town. At first glance I was reminded of Ljubljana and Metelkova City. Lots of bright graffiti and decorative houses, some of which are shacks and sheds while others – eco-houses – have been designed by architects. An extraordinary accumulation of recycled bric-a-brac litters the sides of paths, not unlike some African townships. Althought the residents are determined to show that an alternate lifestyle is possible and can peacefully co-exist with mainstream living, the Danish government seems equally determined to subsume it. Denmark’ Supreme Court has confirmed state ownership and control of the land, and says that the same rules must apply there as elsewhere.
People talk in terms of ‘normalising’ Christiana and you have to wonder why… why can’t we just live and let live? I didn’t feel unsafe and didn’t get the sense that it was a place crying out for change. A little like Haight-asbury in San Francisco in the 1960s, perhaps. Long-term residents are now facing the prospect of legal tenanacy, new neighbours, and new rules. The writing is on the wall and it probably won’t be long before this icon of alternative culture is sanitised beyond recognition.Such a shame – in the short time I was there, I was transported to Ljubljana, South Africa, and California… and that was just me. If people were to look at the likes of Christianshaven as living galleries, where hopes and memories fuse and our bland, ordinary, everyday existence is given a lift, perhaps we might learn to be a little more tolerant.