CHRISTIANA AND THE COST OF BEING DIFFERENT
This is a story about diversity, and the price we pay for it. It is an exploration of how a small autonomous enclave of Copenhagen is providing the city with services it didn’t know it needed, but that are essential to both the national and international collective imagination.
Christiana is a ‘self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood’ of the Danish capital that was founded in 1971 when locals decided to use an abandoned military barracks as a makeshift public park.
The action was immediately read by the creative left-wing community of Copenhagen as a political act, and three weeks after the initial break-in Christiana was proclaimed a free-town. Considering the site had all the necessary facilities to sustain a human community – living quarters, entertainment halls, bathhouses etc (as all military barracks do) – Christiana quickly attracted all the characters expected of the open-source hippy movement of the 1970s – yoga gurus, stoners, political journalists, musicians et al.
Today, around 1500 residents live in the community – including dogs and children – and each adult must pay around £200 a month for the privilege. This money is used to pay for rubbish disposal, communal bathroom cleaning and general maintenance. The quality of the houses vary immensely, with some families currently extending their multi-roomed brick houses with smart timber balconies, while other singletons live in hovels without heating or water. Despite the fact that all the buildings are communally owned, there’s still a sense of haves and have-nots that smells a bit like Animal Farm.
But this is not a post about the inner workings of Christiana, it is not a dissection of its social rules and inequalities. This piece is about how the wider community relates to this ‘free-town’ and what price it is expected to pay to the city to ensure its continued existence.
Unsurprisingly, Christiana has been at dispute with the local and national authorities since its foundation – not least because residents pay no council tax and don’t officially own or rent the land they live on. What’s more, the community is famous for being the centre of the city’s marijuana trade; the first thing you approach upon entering Christiana is the ‘Green Light District’ (also known as Pusher St), a parade of covered kiosks where young and old queue up, rather openly, to buy weed.
Politicians and social thinkers have mixed feelings about Pusher St – some see it as a black mark on the shine of the city, others as a safe(ish) concentration of the marijuana trade which limits the influence of gangs and the violence they bring.
Importantly, Christiana encourages the wider public to interact with their community in other ways than this drug market. There are a number of cafes and bars in the free-town, as well as bicycle shops, clothes shops, a home furnishings warehouse and music and theatre venues. Citizens of Copenhagen proper eat in Christiana’s restaurants, enjoy their theatre, listen to their live music and meditate on the leafy walk atop the old battlements that circle the lake.
In this way, the community offers a service to its hosting city. Like a Camden Town of London, or Mission District of San Francisco, Christiana offers the city’s more conservative residents a place to experiment with ‘counter culture’ – a place to live out teenage fantasies of living in your treehouse and spending the whole day skateboarding.
The problem is, Camden and the Mission are no longer the real deal. More money is probably spent in Camden Lock Market than Harrods, and house prices in the Mission District are now only affordable to Google executives. Christiana, however, is still rolling in the freedom it quietly stole.
So how has Christiana defied gentrification?
First, all the buildings in Christiana are ‘owned’ by the Christiana Fund, a collective body which is run by the residents of the community. If my description sounds vague, that’s because it is – the issue of ownership in Christiana is peppered with laws and theoretical debate, none of which seem conclusive. But one key factor is this: no-one individually owns property in Christiana, so no-one can sell it.
Camden’s gentrific demise is the offspring of urban flux and the private-land market economy. If you own something someone wants, it’s your right to sell it. In cities things move fast and change value quickly – what’s cool today is expensive tomorrow – and in a world ruled by money traders don’t twiddle thumbs.
Because no-one can sell their property in Christiana, things move slow. It took one current resident 20 years to finally get accepted as a member of the community – a decision that can only happen through absolute consensus at the general meeting – and that was only after someone died and the new resident could take on his house (and job).
In our modern world, speed is thrust upon us. But places like Christiana allow both residents and visitors the space to see what happens when things move at the pace of humans instead of computers. If the market is left to reign free over all things, speed will become endemic. One reason that Christiana is valuable to the surrounding community is that it shows that sometimes good things take time.
One positive result of this dedication to the slow is seen in the aesthetics of the free-town. Every architect would agree that Christiana is an inspirational sweet shop, both the personality of the ‘alternative’ builders and the time it takes these independents to work means that the design of the buildings is like nothing we see sprouting up from our modern system. You can’t tell a billionaire Sheikh that his mansion’s not ready because ‘it’ll look nicer if it develops organically over the next five or ten years’. The ‘home-made’ aesthetic is a healthy antidote to architectural monotony.
The richest people in the world live in gated communities, walled estates where passers-by are denied even the chance to gaze upon the houses they can’t possibly afford. Christiana is a tourist attraction, thousands of visitors stroll its winding paths each year for a glimpse at how these ‘weirdoes’ live.
Many intentional communities fear that too many visitors will make them feel like they’re living in a human zoo – but Christiana is the first I visited where they could probably charge a €5 entry fare and still have a hundred guests a day. By living in such an accessible location, they allow their ‘normal’ siblings to ogle at their ‘primitive’ lifestyle.
Interestingly, such a fare would probably be welcomed by the local authorities. It would mean that Christiana itself could be classified as a business and therefore be eligible to pay corporation tex.
The point is that Christiana is providing a cultural service to the world. Get UNESCO in the picture, slap some kind of plaque on the entrance gate and let the community continue.
But the final question is: do the residents of Christiana want this? Recently there’s been a proposal to build a city bike path through the free-town. On the surface this seems like a perfect way to integrate Christiana into the wider community, but the residents fear it is just the first step in the city ‘taking back the land’. It is just this level of paranoia that may bloom into bulldozers.
Slow is a lifestyle choice, stationary is death. Christiana have to learn to make some compromises with the local authorities if they want to continue their dream – so perhaps allowing the bicycle path is one of them. But the authorities must realise the true value of Christiana, both as an international tourist attraction, and – as one Copenhagen resident, who lives 100 metres from the edge of the community, said – as a beneficial bacteria that may live off the support of the surrounding city, but provides essential ingredients for the urban cultural immune system.
Christiana is the irreverent, scruffy, unpredictable younger sister who may offend your great aunt with her gaudy clothes, but entertains the cousins by teaching them karate. She may sometimes embarrass the family, but disowning her because she’s different would be absurdly inhumane.