Christiania: an experiment in building ‘a society from scratch’

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

Garry Maddox
October 22 2017

At first glance, utopia is working well in Denmark.

In a cafe in the Copenhagen community of Christiania​, aka Freetown, dogs wander freely among relaxed diners eating home-made organic food as Bob Marley sings No Woman, No Cry over a speaker.

Signs declare that this environmentally-friendly, car-free suburb not far from Prince Frederik​ and Princess Mary’s palace is opposed to racism and hard drugs. But the community tolerates other drugs to the point where stalls illegally sell marijuana and hash on one street as openly as if they were selling trinkets or second-hand crockery at an Australian flea market.

Christiania is a fascinating social experiment, home to roughly 1000 artists, students, welfare recipients, squatters, misfits, anarchists, freethinkers and hippies. It is also one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, with more than a million visitors a year.

The Danish waitress who recommended a visit loved the relaxed counterculture lifestyle. The sense of freedom even in an environmentally-friendly city regularly considered one of the world’s most liveable.

And arriving beneath a gate with “Christiania” on one side – the other side tells leavers “you are now entering the EU” – the first-time visitor is struck by a vibrantly colourful scene.

Old buildings have been adapted for modern use, including a museum, music venues, bike workshop, shops, galleries and cafes. Many newer houses set amid greenery have a quirky home-made, recycled quality.

There is colourful street art just about everywhere, bar a gypsy caravan on which the owner has posted a sign saying “no tags please”.

Locals drink Christiania brand beer, cheerfully sell Christiania T-shirts to tourists and ride Christiania cargo bikes, carrying their children to school and their shopping in a box out front.

There is an ingenious indoor skateboard ramp, a soccer field with an anarchically placed tree that must interfere with matches, an amphitheatre for concerts and a “women’s blacksmith”.

Hippie Disneyland, Danish style, dates back to 1971.

Anarchist newspaper editor Jacob Ludvigsen​, who died six months ago, came up with the idea of turning an abandoned military base into an alternative suburb in response to a shortage of affordable housing. He called it an “opportunity to build up a society from scratch” – a self-governing, economically self-sustaining community that would be home to both “seekers of peace” and “stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race”.

After the Social Democratic government gave Christiania the temporary status of “social experiment”, it grew into a lively riverside enclave on 34 hectares.

Rather than voting, residents have been encouraged over the years to make decisions based on consensus after discussing an issue.

Christiania operates on a self-administered system that allocates funds every year to maintain common property, kindergartens, sewers, recycling and waste collection. It has its own court that deals with police matters, negotiations with the rest of Denmark and community disputes.

But if the community was founded on idealism, a series of controversies have tested the Danish affection for its progressive ways over its 46-year history. Most have centred on the drug market known aptly enough as Pusher Street.

“The gangs are controlling that part and not the real people of Christiania,” says Hasse, a student who lives elsewhere in Copenhagen. He believes the city is divided 50-50 on support for the area.

“There have been big fights out there with the police and last year Pusher Street was torn down,” he says. “But everything is back to normal now.”

In the early 1980s, a bikie gang took control of the drugs trade and, after a number of violent incidents, Christiania banned bikie colours.

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