On an unseasonably sunny Saturday this fall, Freetown Christiania, a semi-autonomous commune spread across 74 acres in central Copenhagen, Denmark, was buzzing with activity. A man weaved his way through the crowd on a bicycle, selling freshly made sushi rolls. Street market stalls were filled with colorful clothing, tapestries and glass bongs. And at its center, men illegally sold marijuana from wooden stalls lining an area known as Pusher Street.
“This is paradise,” the tourist told his friend as he surveyed the scene.
But beneath the surface of joy was tension.
Founded by squatters on an abandoned military base in 1971, Christiania is a place where people can live freely outside of Denmark’s market economy, build their homes wherever and however they like, and make a living selling marijuana. It was conceived as a post-60s anarchist utopia that could be built. , and live as you please as long as you do not harm your neighbors. The Danish government vacillated between trying to subjugate the community and turning a blind eye as Christians ignored property and drug laws, without much success. But 50 years later, with worsening gang violence and new government attempts to normalize the commune, some residents feel that dreams of an alternative society have disappeared.
The notorious Pusher Street, once primarily run by residents but now gang-infested, may be the first domino to fall. And Christiania’s approximately 900 residents will receive 15,000 square meters of new social housing and hundreds of You may have to move in with new neighbors. From the Danish government.
Some residents fear the new housing will mark the end of Christiania’s autonomy, and perhaps its community spirit. The only solution to escalating gang violence, they say, is for the government to legalize marijuana (although harder drugs are also available on Pusher Street). Those who see Pusher Street as an epidemic believe the community should embrace a public housing plan and allow the government to close Pusher Street once and for all, something police have tried to do many times over the years. This is one of the reasons why it could not be realized. Until this year, Christians refused to cooperate with them.
“It was really anarchic here,” said Ole Ricke, 77, who has lived in Christiania since 1980 and manages the commune’s archives. “You could do whatever you wanted as long as it didn’t bother other people, and there was a sense of community.”
Now, Luecke realizes that the end of this experiment is at hand. “I think in five, seven, eight years, Christiania won’t be Christiania anymore.”
out of their control
Carl Oscar Strange sat outside the local brewery he co-owned, looking out from under his hat at the drug dealers of Pusher Street. “They are a cancer to Christiania,” he said. Two weeks ago, there was a shooting on the street that left four people injured and one killed.
Mr Strange, 34, has lived in the semi-autonomous area, which occupies a winding strip of land on Copenhagen’s Amager Island, all his life. “Growing up in Christiania was the best childhood ever,” Strange said. “We had freedom. Pusher Street was very nice back then.”
But dealers have changed, he said. As he speaks, a tourist approaches and offers Mr. Strange a half-smoked joint. He took it, took a long drag, and then continued talking. “Five to seven years ago it was much tougher,” he says. “Now they only want profit. They don’t bring good vibes.”
Christiania has long embraced cannabis while avoiding more dangerous substances. But as gangs overtook the drug trade, harder drugs began to make inroads, along with some of the violence that underpins organized crime. After the recent shootings, residents of Christiania, which operates a consensus democracy in which decisions are made by unanimous consent in town hall-style meetings, agreed that Pusher Street should be permanently closed. , they came to two conclusions: the state should intervene. A step towards a dissident community.
“This has never happened before,” said Mette Prag, 59, an architect and Christiania spokeswoman who has lived there since 1987. Ms. Plagg was sitting on the porch of her home, with a charming grassy knoll in the background. Her home is just a five-minute walk from Pusher Street, but it feels otherworldly, quiet and idyllic.
“This decision showed how fed up many of us are,” she said as she poured herself a glass of rhubarb juice. “It showed you that you had to choose: Are you in or out? Also, there were a lot of people on set who came to watch. The streets were full and they were in a crowd. They were firing at us.”
The incident follows a stabbing and assault this spring, followed by fatal shootings in 2021 and 2022, and the fatal shooting of two police officers and a bystander in 2016. Police crackdowns began in 2004 and have intensified in recent years. Copenhagen Mayor Sophie Heistrup Andersen said police tried to block Pusher Street more than 100 times in 2022. “But as soon as they leave, they come right back,” she said.
“When the police started to intervene more regularly and more frequently, many people who were crossing the bridge from the market to Christiania were imprisoned,” said Ms. Heistrup Andersen. “This has created an opening for some of the gangs to infiltrate the scene.” Some of the gangs are believed to be from Sweden, where organized crime has increased significantly.
This summer, the mayor said he finally received a signal from Christians that after half a century, they were seeking outside help. In the middle of the night in early August, dozens of residents descended on Pusher Street, destroying drug stalls and blocking the entrances with large containers. Within a few hours, the stall was back up and running again.
Residents wrote in a Facebook statement that they felt powerless against the gang’s power. “We are ordinary people who have to go to work and pack lunches for our children,” the statement said. “Gangs are prepared to use violence and kill people to protect their income and territory.”
Archivist Luecke spends his days in several brightly colored rooms lined with files, books, newspaper clippings and posters documenting Christiania’s history. He was smoking a cigarette in one hand and flipping through the yellowed pages of the 1971 newspaper article that led to the formation of Christiania. “The mafia doesn’t listen to anyone,” he said. “The idea behind Christiania is openness and honesty. Mafia is the opposite.”
Musician Andreas Benetzen, 48, who has lived here for 14 years, used to come to the area with friends for concerts as a teenager. “I remember walking into that place and feeling a sense of freedom, like anything was possible,” he said. But now, the escalating violence on Pusher Street has created an “ongoing crisis situation that we must address.”
Benetzen has been involved in several attempts to close Pusher Street, but he sees these as mostly symbolic. “You can shut it down all you want, but the only solution is legalization,” he said of marijuana.
Mayor Heistrup Andersen said she was in favor of legalizing cannabis, but that her position was contrary to her party’s official position in parliament. In September, Denmark’s Ministry of Justice announced plans to create a disciplinary zone in Christiania with large fines for those found in possession of cannabis.
A life beyond the boundaries of society
“The people of Christiania are all people who didn’t fit into society in some way,” said Marios Orozco, 61, who has lived here since 1981 and used to work as a dealer on Pusher Street. “What they have in common is that they don’t care what people think of them.”
Residents may have little regard for hierarchy or social norms, but they live within many rules and organizational structures. Hard drugs and violence are prohibited. Rent and mortgage payments are calculated in part based on the size of the residence, whether it’s a converted barracks, a building shaped like a small spaceship, or a run-down house with a dandelion on it. That’s 32 Danish kroner, or about $4.67. , per square meter per month. The community also collects a monthly membership fee of 1,350 Danish kroner, or $196, to run Christiania, which helps pay the salaries of electricians, gardeners, garbage collectors and others.
In the early days, Orozco said, “You might find a really run-down house, move in there, fix it up, and then when you get there, no one can do anything about it. Or you might get in a trailer and roll into Christiania in the dark. Masu.”
Currently, construction requires permits to be obtained and structures to be built to last for decades. (Pragg, the community spokesperson, said she has built additions to her home in the past in anticipation that Christiania might be gone in a few years.) Applicants are interviewed by potential neighbors.
In 2011, following a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the state’s control of Christiania, the Danish government and Christians agreed to help residents set up a foundation to purchase a quarter of Christiania’s land, with fixed rents. An agreement was reached to begin making payments. The rest.
Residents now want to buy the rest for 67 million Danish kroner, or about $9.5 million, but a key element of the deal is the condition that 15,000 square meters of social housing be built in the city over the next 10 years. You cannot purchase unless you agree to the terms. That is absolutely necessary. In recent years, Copenhagen’s housing supply has lagged behind population growth, according to a report by consulting firm Copenhagen Economics. The report warns that rising rents and house prices in urban areas could lead to “squeezing of low-income groups”.
Mette Kjerkgaard, a member of Denmark’s parliament and minister for senior citizens, whose jurisdiction falls under the agreement with Christiania, said in an email: . I see this agreement as promising and am eagerly looking forward to following Christiania’s progress. ”
However, some residents are concerned about the lack of space for housing. (According to the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Senior Citizens, approximately 75% of Christiania’s land is protected and cannot be developed.)
“Nobody knows where all these homes are going to be built,” Ricke said. “We’re talking about an area equal to 1,000 regular-sized shipping containers. In my nightmares, I see 1,000 containers falling from the sky and landing in Christiania.”
Residents will also lose the power to decide who will move in. And questions abound. For example: Will newcomers embrace the time-consuming aspects of consensus democracy? “It’s hard to sit in a consensus meeting like this for four or five hours without getting comfortable,” Strange said.
Some believe new housing could be an opportunity to rethink the future of the community.
“This could be Christiania’s chance to redefine itself after 50 years,” said Alex Hummel-Lee, 45, an assistant professor at the Institute of Architecture, Urbanism and Landscape at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. This year, he had students create a public housing proposal that integrated Christiania’s needs and values.
“This is a really closed place,” Hummel-Lee said. “A lot of social dynamics become difficult.”
Strange believes the new housing will bring more opportunities and fresh energy to the commune as it enters a new era. “Breweries will attract more customers and new entrants will bring their families and children. We will also be able to start youth teams for football clubs,” he said. “We can grow.”