In the southeast corner of the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, there lies a small community which goes by the name of Christiania. The name alone sounds quaint, pastoral even. However, this community is anything but. With a history more colorful than a Pollock painting and a political system of anarchy to boot, Christiania is one of the few corners of the world where going against the grain isn’t merely tolerated, but welcomed.
Freetown Christiania, spanning 84 acres in the borough of Christianshavn, wasn’t always this way. Site of former military barracks Bådsmandsstræde, the area was abandoned from 1967 to 1971. In September of that year, residents of the surrounding neighborhood broke down its fence in order to transform the area into a playground for their children. It has been speculated that this was in protest of the Danish government, as there was a serious lack of affordable housing in Copenhagen at the time. Christiania transformed into a community in and of itself, complete with a flag and a mission statement which read,
“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.”
In other words, an anarchy.
In the following years, the community became a haven for squatters. Clashes with police forces were frequent, drug usage was prevalent, and it was even shut down by residents for a short time in 2011. Nonetheless, the Freetown has attracted many tourists and pulls in around half a million visitors annually.
While on holiday in Copenhagen last November, I decided to explore this cultural hub for myself. Just around dusk, I walked under the archway with “CHRISTIANIA” painted on it. Not many people were around, and I’ll admit that I was a bit sketched out. Walking along the path, I happened upon a Tacheles -esque building to my left. The sight of dilapidatedstairwells and graffiti was oddly comforting, and any feelings of uneasiness I previously held disappeared. I kept exploring; past all the head shops (more like stands) and figures looming in the shadows, I came across a red door. Metal music emanated from within, and I questioned whether to open it. This was promptly countered with, “Why the hell not?” Inside, I was met with a dreadlocked man smiling back at me, offering homemade vegetarian food and fresh produce. He charged for food by weight, and at a price MUCH cheaper than Whole Foods. He pointed out the vegan fare and happily answered each question I had.
I opted to try a bit of nearly everything, and he gave me a complementary glass of water with my meal. I sat down with my plate full of veggies, hummus, and pasta at a table clad in red-and-white checkerboard tablecloth, the kind you’d see ants crawling all over at a picnic. Yet there were no pests to be seen here: the place is surprisingly clean. I picked up a copy of Bitchslap, a local zine, and read through it as I ate. Shortly thereafter, a relatively large group of people wandered in and the man welcomed them with open arms, moving around chairs and rearranging tables to accommodate their size. They spoke and laughed, mostly in Dutch, but I didn’t need to speak the language in order to feel the sense of community filling the room.
Christiania, however peculiar, is a very special place. Its history has been turbulent, its citizens often marginalized, but these occurrences have no doubt shaped the town into what it is today. In a way, it embodies a sense of belonging that could only come out of anarchy and distance from state rule. Freetown Christiania had a modest beginning, born out of residents’ wish for a playground for their children. It went from military barracks, a place of war, to a place of peace and co-existence. This is community in its truest sense.