Getting the Christiania vibe...or not

by: Tim Anderson (

Christianshavn including Christiania - A bit of Copenhagen.

The vibe of Christiania - the 60’s hippy ghetto/cultural experiment located in the heart of Copenhagen now in its 4th decade of peaceful existence - is as strong as ever, I am delighted to be able to report, in spite of the political challenges it is currently facing (more on those shortly).

As a resident of Christianshavn (the area of Copenhagen where Christiania can be found), I have the good fortune of being able to regularly enjoy numerous aspects of the place without actually living there. From it’s restaurants, clubs, walking paths and even the sauna, I have spent a fair amount of time in Christiania over the years, so I do feel capable of voicing a reasonably informed opinion on the subject.

Christiania rarely disappoints. What is perhaps most astonishing is the enduring popularity of the various events Christiania hosts. Some of my most enjoyable moments in Copenhagen during recent months have been there.

Loppen is a place where, for most events, a small but enthusiastic crowd spends as much time sitting at the tables beside the stage in conversation and doffing back pints as on the dance floor itself. On the evening of the recent sold-out Vive La Fete show (one of Europes finest underground electro pop/Berliner trash bands, though virtually unknown by mainstream/commercial standards), the crowd was an overwhelming mass of people. The coat room may have run out of hangars, and the floor of the rickety building may have bounced dramatically up and down as the crowd danced, but then again, at Loppen it’s all been done before.

I have listened to numerous fantastic late-evening jazz-jam sessions Wednesday nights at the Børneteatret (aka The Children’s Theatre). At a recent session with some friends, the place was buzzing, as usual. Having not been to such an evening for several months, I was amazed to re-discover that even long-after midnight it was standing room only – this on a cold, dark midweek winter night. The rest of Copenhagen is largely tranquil weeknights at this hour with but a few cars and bicycles moving through the streets. Yet a small, word-of-mouth event such as this one manages to draw a determined crowd nonetheless.

On the more pedestrian end of things, a couple weeks back I passed an enormously relaxing hour in the largely anonymous Christiania Bath House, the fantastic communal sauna existing since the 70’s. This was my first introduced to the place thanks to a couple friends who themselves had stumbled upon it only by chance. Frequented by in large by the Christiania locals, it is an infinitely pleasant experience – and costing a laughably meagre 20 kroner.

Then there are the incidentals like the Christiania falafel that is arguably (though only by those who haven’t tasted them) the best Falafel to be found in Copenhagen and the delights of the 24-hour Christiania bakery like decent coissants (a rarity in Copenhagen) and chocolate brownies (made the North American way with soft chocolate cake and plenty of rich, fudge-chocolate icing that I like oh so much). A passing conversation with a police officer (a friend of a friend of a friend) who regularly patrols Christiania provided me with the warning that Christiania is a rat-infested place – he wouldn’t eat anything sold there – but I continue to take my chances.

When my parents visited Copenhagen some months back, our obligatory tour of Christiania was inevitably successful. Our dinner at Spiseloppen, the undisputed finest of Christiania’s restaurants, ultimately proved to be one of the culinary highlights of my parents visit to Denmark. They still happily speak of Christiania, inquiring regularly about the state the current political challenges facing the place. My parents have never been hippies, so their interest stems from a genuine enthusiasm for what they saw and experienced - not some idealistic 60’s shadow persona that lingers from their past.

So here we come to a real topic of discussion, the political issues.

My experiences over the years have lead me to conclude that opponents, including those within the current parliament who have voted for legislation proposing to ’normalise’ Christiania, would be well advised to spend some hours discovering what is actually going on there. Clearly, most critics simply haven’t a clue what it is they are in fact criticising. The claims of the current government seem to mirror the views of those who alarm themselves to hysteria at the thought that a place exists (happily and peacefully, by in large) that is organised in a manner differing from much of the society they know, comprehend and believe in (read: a society conservative in nature by comparison). They simply cannot fathom it. Rather than simply being green with envy, they turn red with outrage. It is a sorry state of affairs when one finds such people in positions of power within the government and creating legislation encapsulating this ignorance in poetic legal terms.

Why is it there is such a strong sediment against Christiania, at least from certain corners of Danish society? The Danish government has recently passed legislation that, if implemented as it reads, will lead to the ‘normalisation’ of Christiania. In practise, this means that collective ownership of the area by it’s residents (or non-ownership, if you prefer) will no longer be possible. Some would be able to afford to purchase their houses, apartments and properties, while others would not. This is not the heart of the problem that will be created if the legislation is enacted.

Inevitably, the end of collective ownership would spell and end to the collective-decision making that has created the spirit of community that exists in this diverse yet closely-knit society. This would be a tragic and unrecoverable loss for Copenhagen, but moreover for those people who have spent much of their lives living and breathing it. And with spectacular success.

It is no coincidence that that which makes Christiania so unique, is found specifically in Christiania.

Nobody is forced to live in Christiania against their will. There is no overriding, compelling argument for why those who voluntarily opt to accept a system of non-ownership and collective-decision (including those who may choose do so in the future) should suddenly be forced to accept just the opposite. The government can negotiate with Christiania as a collective with regards to property issues, just as easily as it can as a society of individuals owners. The proof is the fact they have be doing it for over thirty years already. What is really motivating them?

Currently, the only representatives of government one is likely to see around Christiania come in the form of (endless) patrols of policemen - armed with full riot gear every time. They love to make their intrusive presence felt around the place. Sadly, their actions are disruptive, provocative and unnecessary. This approach to passive policing is about as subtle and endearing as is enduring a group during a movie roaming the aisles with very bright lights they shine randomly but constantly into various faces in the audience, just to see how people are doing. It is hardly the most effective way for the police to demonstrate their general engagement in the Christiania situation, nor does it show an adequate level of respect and decency for others ones expects in a civilised society. Why is it the police feel the need to endlessly patrol Christiania in a manner distinct from the methods they deploy elsewhere in Copenhagen? Some would say the answer is drugs.

After countless visits of my own to Christiania both day and night over the years, I can unequivocally state that I have never once felt threatened – even back in the days not so long ago when Pusher Street was home to a thriving and peaceful soft-drug trade that the police were will aware existed. A community of underground but easily accessible hash clubs continues exist in Copenhagen, in any event.

Something beyond the soft-drug trade is motivating these police actions, in spite of claims to the contrary. What exactly is the real problem? Is it simply a feeling felt by the government, mirrored in the police behaviour, that their absolute authority is challenged by the very existence of this continuing successful four decade-old social experiment?

The truth is that there never has been a problem in Christiania that warranted the creation of the artificial one the government has chosen to depict - and then pass legislation to supposedly rectify. But thanks to the legislation, a real problem now subsequently has been provoked – the threatened future of Chistiania and its ‘alternative’ lifestyle.

So, I would like to make a small confession: I am one of those green with envy that a place with the sense community and togetherness that Christiania has confidently thrives while I don’t know a single person living in my own multi-building complex (even in spite of its ample shared garden out back). How many others in Copenhagen have a similar relation with their neighbours? Those of us in this situation simply do not have the right to criticise those who have found a way around this issue – and nor does the government.

So I would like to also offer a small challenge to those Danish Members of Parliament that have voted in favour of normalising Christiania:

Muster some courage to enter into the unknown, and go wandering around Christiania on a few occasions. Go to some of the restaurants and participate in some of the events and try to understand just what the place really is about, for yourself. Don’t be scared to try talking to a few people. Then you will have done a genuine public service you can be proud of.

1 Response to "Getting the Christiania vibe...or not"

  1. It's very interesting, but this sounds a bit like communism. I assume this is only communal ownership of the housing units and not communal ownership of businesses, or am I wrong?

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