I chugged along on my bicycle, occasionally stopping to take a quick look at the map on my phone till I could see the entrance to Christiana. I turned to B, who was right behind me and with a quick nod of agreement, we decided to a few more minutes of cycling till we were officially “outside of the European union” and inside Christiana.
We found a good spot to park our bicycles and decided to walk around. As history goes, Freetown Christiana was established in 1971 by a group of hippies, who broke down barricades to an abandoned military base and eventually built a society, with its own rules, laws, currency, completely independent of the Danish government and “considered outside of it”. Over the years, this community built houses, workshops and cafes, experimented with green building techniques, solar energy and water-treatment systems to reduce their ecological footprint. Many small businesses flourished and the place attracted artists and musicians, free thinkers who found it a haven. In 1973, the government gave Christiana the temporary status of a “social experiment” which allowed the town to persist, and 16 years later with a majority vote in the parliament, this squat was made officially legal.
But can such a Utopian world really sustain?
YES, there are over 900 people living in the town today, many of them third generation.
As we walked around, we saw these houses and sheds and murals and art and boutiques. There was even a community center and a movie theater. Residents were out and about, sitting on their porch, walking their dogs and just going about their daily business.
We were distracted by a sound, a woman’s voice but coming from a speaker. Intrigued, we followed the sound, to be led to a large garden in which a huge crowd had gathered. Everyone had a green balloon in their hand, those who didn’t were offered one by the volunteers. The woman on the mike was asking more people to join in, to what exactly was unclear to us. As we got closer to the crowd, a lady approached me and offered a balloon. I asked her what it was for, she smiled sweetly and said something I couldn’t quite comprehend. I held on to my balloon, confused what to do with it. The woman on the mike suddenly began a countdown, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and shouted “Legalize Cannabis”, everyone released their balloons in the air and chanted the same, like a slogan. It felt strange and stupid to be standing there, taking a part in something that I had no reference point of and did not endorse. Why were these people fighting to legalize drugs, and what point of view did I have on it to stand there and release a balloon, for god’s sake. I felt disturbed.
B and I walked away and decided to get a coffee, we sat in a small café, quietly sipping our coffees, confused with what had just passed. As we got up to leave, we heard loud music on the street and came out to see people dancing and drinking, like it was a carnival. A few makeshift stalls had come up, out of nowhere, and we could see that they were selling cannabis. A tourist tried to click a photo, and immediately 2 men came from behind the stand and took his phone and I would presume, deleted the photos. You are not allowed to click pictures, specifically where the cannabis trade is done, its written everywhere on street signs in the town. Don’t ignore it.
We left this scene and walked around an area which was like a flea market, selling t-shirts, food, jewelry, crafts, and household items. I would hope it was all locally made, but knowing that Christiana is the second most popular tourist attraction while visiting Copenhagen, I can’t be sure if it is outside businesses making sunshine.
We reached our bicycles and decided to head back. It was an odd experience, but it felt like there was more to the place than what I saw in the afternoon, so I decided to do some research online. I learnt that Cannabis is still illegal in Denmark, however Christiana allowed for it since the beginning. Since the town is a “Freetown”, the government tolerated it. Initially the trade was run locally and by small businessmen, but how long could bigger gangs keep away? The trade was too lucrative for that.
Raids have been conducted in Christiania many times to keep a check on drug sales on a street names Pusher Street but none got as violent as in 2016, when a police officer was injured by a gunshot. The residents were upset and decided to have a meeting where it was unanimously decided to shut down Pusher Street. The current version of the trade is probably very small and patchy from used it used to be.
Since then, Copenhagen officials are trying to legalize cannabis so that the trade can be controlled effectively. The proposal has been rejected multiple times in the past. What happens in the future is anyone’s guess.
The internet is full of videos and articles from the residents, who claim to want to nurture and protect the spirit of Christiana, which is self-sustainable, free thinking and independent. Where everyone is equal and has a voice. Where the community is supreme. Where creativity is valued. Most express disappointment that the focus largely remains on the Cannabis trade, which they say is a part of the ecosystem but not the whole system itself.
The more I read about the place, the more I realized that my first encounter was a bit deceptive. I was a passerby in an ecosystem that I did not understand, and I found it comforting to paint everything with one stroke and generalize. The reality turns out to be far more complex. One can have an opinion on an ideology, and even disagreement with certain aspects of it, but it is incredible that a place like Christiana can exist and sustain itself for over 46 years. What will its future be like, I am curious to know. But if only for its spirit, you should go see it – With an open mind.