A Christiania resident removes a hash stall from Pusher Street, where up to 1bn krone changes hands every year. Photograph: Thomas Borberg/AP
theguardian.com – Paradise lost: does Copenhagen’s Christiania commune still have a future? For 45 years, Christiania has stood as a community-led utopia, its cannabis trade central to a liberal culture. But the shooting of a police officer has forced residents to take radical action. As the smoke clears, will it ever be the same again? – Athlyn Cathcart-Keays in Copenhagen
Late in the evening on Wednesday 31 August, gunshots were fired in the centre of Christiania, Copenhagen’s semi-autonomous freetown. Three people were injured, including one police officer, who remains in critical condition. The gunman – a 25-year-old Dane who was later shot and killed by the police – is believed to have been involved in Christiania’s hash trade.
Cannabis has long been sold and enjoyed in this unique neighbourhood, a famous utopian commune in the heart of Denmark’s capital. Historically a centre of freedom and resistance, it will celebrate on Monday the 45th anniversaryof the day that squatters – known as slumstormerene – broke down the barricades of an abandoned military base, creatively activating disused spaces in a time when living conditions were poor. In 1973, the Social Democratic government gave Christiania the official temporary status of “social experiment” – a term that many criticised as its residents had not agreed to participate. Nonetheless, this ruling allowed Christiania to persist, and a majority vote in parliament in 1989 set the Christiania Law in stone, legalising the squat.
Stroll beyond “downtown” Christiania, with its bars, cafes, shops and performance venues, and you’ll stumble across the things that make the community unique. Residents have renovated old barracks, adapting them into practical spaces such as houses, kindergartens, workshops and cafes; they have built their own avant garde homes; and in the birthplace of the iconic Christiania cargo bike, the streets are completely void of cars.
The community also has its own social services in cooperation with the municipality, known as Herfra og Videre (Onwards and Upwards), as well as a health centre. With the exception of schools, hospitals and social services, Christiania likes to do things its own way. It has established a self-administrating system that spends 29m kroner (£3.3m) annually on maintaining common property, kindergartens, sewers, recycling and waste collection.
Drug use was always a part of the community. In recent years, however, the cannabis trade has evolved. Once led by small-time dealers, it is now controlled by large, multinational organisations, including the Danish branch of the Hell’s Angels, who are neither residents nor employees of Christiania.
“This transition has happened over many years,” says Risenga Manghezi, a community spokesperson who has lived in Christiania for seven years. “In the last 10 to 15 years, the police have been really hard on Pusher Street. This means the softer ‘mom-and-pop shops’ have disappeared, and it’s only the ones who are most willing to take risks and manipulate Christianites who have stayed.”
Recent figures from the Copenhagen police estimate that between up to 1bnkroner (£115m) changes hands each year in Pusher Street.
“Today you have pre-rolled joints, different types of hash,” says Manghezi. “It’s all very systemised and there is a lot of money going through there.”
In this otherwise semi-autonomous and socially minded community, a capitalist-style “drugs supermarket” had developed, and was spinning out of control – culminating in the recent shootout. “This was something most of us knew could happen,” Manghezi says. “It’s not the first time somebody’s been shot in Christiania. But I’ve always thought that the day a police officer gets shot, that’s the day things will get really bad.”
Indeed, the next evening, roughly 400 of Christiania’s 700 adult residents gathered in the community’s meeting space. The democratic process in Christiania is based on a consensus mechanism, and cannabis sellers are often present at community meetings: to have a hash stall in Christiania, you must be a resident.
Some gangs, however, have manipulated locals into acting as a front for their trade. Their presence at meetings, Manghezi laments, makes it difficult to build momentum to change the way Pusher Street is run. But this time it was clear something drastic would happen: by the end of the meeting, residents had decided to demolish all stalls in the “cannabis supermarket” and reclaim the area from outside dealers.
“The whole vibe around Pusher Street has really sucked a lot of the energy out of Christiania. This has been a wakeup call for what we have here,” says Manghezi. “Police confrontation around Pusher Street has halted a lot of the great things that could go on. I hope that what we’ve done will now release some new energy so we can focus on the cool things happening.”
Since the stalls were destroyed, the atmosphere is noticeably different: pop-up community meals have taken place, and there is talk of plans for a fountain. There have always been a lot of positive lessons to learn from this alternative urban conclave. The community continuously experiments with green building techniques, stormwater management, solar energy and water-treatment systems to reduce their ecological footprint. Christiania’s creativity and experimentation has always existed, but the presence of Pusher Street has dominated the focus. “It has made people sort of not talk about the social experiment,” says Manghezi. “It’s given the general feeling that things we do here are illegal – they really aren’t!”
This freedom to experiment is at the core of Christiania’s principles. When resident and archivist Ole Lykke first moved to the freetown in 1979, he says, “you’d have a good idea, you’d go ahead with it, and if somebody complained, you’d deal with it. If not, then you’d just go ahead.”
But in 2011, their principles were threatened when the Danish government insisted that Christiania either purchase the land or be bought out. Because of Christianites’ rejection of property rights, the prospect of ownership was unappealing. So they set up a foundation to buy the land. Many supporters of the commune jumped at the chance to “buy a little share of freedom”,more than 12.5m kroner was raised, a mortgage was secured and Christiania was saved.
The mortgage payments rise every year, but this “rent” is immensely cheaper than the rest of central Copenhagen – giving Christiania “the perfect elements for gentrification”, says Manghezi. Autonomous or not, Christiania faces the same challenges as many inner-city neighbourhoods when it comes to the pressures of market forces.
Just across the water, in an area known as Papirøen (Paper Island), a former paper factory is being colonised by a food market, a gallery and design offices, preparing the area for transformation into a luxury development.
Furthermore, the city’s “kissing” bridge finally opened this summer, linking up colourful Nyhavn harbour to Christiania via the likes of the famous high-end restaurant Noma and the city’s opera house. As the land around it grows more expensive, how will this more de-commodified space continue to thrive while staying true to its values?
“When Christiania started, there was nothing around here,” says Lykke. “If you were coming to the area, you either came here or to the ship-building factory, which closed down in 1986. If Christiania hadn’t started in these old military barracks, most of this area would’ve been torn down. Then they would’ve built concrete houses that probably would’ve been torn down by now. We saved this area, and have made an attraction in the city.”
Indeed, with up to a million annual visitors, Christiania is the Danish capital’s second most popular attraction. “Copenhagen needs grassroots movements like Christiania because they add new dimensions and dynamics to our culture and urban life,” says the city’s mayor, Frank Jensen. “The city needs to make room for people that give Copenhagen the edge and contributes to making it stand out, nationally and internationally.”
It is increasingly clear, however, that combating the illicit drug trade is key to ensuring Christiania’s survival. In a recent “landmark” agreement,residents agreed to let police install video surveillance. And Christiania is now urging cannabis customers to buy their drugs elsewhere.
As the smoke of the gang-dominated hash industry clears, will Christiania still hold the same attraction it once did?
“We cannot allow for the cannabis market to keep funding organised crime,” says Jensen. “We need to find a lasting solution to this problem … I think a carefully controlled legalisation would be a better way to regulate the cannabis market than the current prohibition.”
As Ole Lykke watches Christiania’s last hash stall being crane-lifted on to the back of a truck, on its way to Copenhagen City Museum to memorialise this latest chapter in a unique community’s 45-year story, he considers the implications of what he’s seeing. “The next steps depend on the narcotics politics of Denmark,” he says. “We’re really writing history here.”