31 March 2010

Christiania: Copenhagen's Dirty Secret

If you have ever wondered what would actually happen if die-hard hippies, anarchists, and other groups of similarly extreme, far-from-the-mainstream political thinkers got their way, then perhaps you should consider a tour through Christiania. I warn you, however, that a visit is not without its dangers.

The so-called "independent" community of Christiania finds itself on an island in Copenhagen's harbor, only a bit east of the city center. This social experiment began in the early 1970s when a group of squatters moved into abandoned military barracks on the island, likely motivated by that politically explosive era. They then proceeded to declare their independence not merely from Copenhagen but Denmark as a whole, and set about to organize an anarchistic society. Though a few rules supposedly existed to ensure the safety of the residents, the founders' intentions were to create a community free of any government or state interference and where an anything-goes mentality was the de facto law of the land. As a result, the lanes and shacks of Christiania soon filled with all characters from fringe society. While some respectable entrepreneurs set up stalls to sell organic produce or hand-made utensils and household items, others took advantage of the booming drug market. All of this retail activity took place openly and without any stigma against it from the Christianians.

From the beginning, the governments of Copenhagen and Denmark took a wait-and-see approach. With their refusal to pay taxes, unauthorized settlement of government property, and other illicit activities, Christianians were definitely leading illegal lives, but the governments were also uncertain of how to deal with the situation. On one hand, Christiania centered Copenhagen's drug market in one neighborhood. Destroying the community would simply disburse the trafficking throughout the city, making it more difficult to police. On the other hand, the governments were essentially granting Christianians immunity from the laws that applied to all other citizens of Denmark. Within the last twenty years or so this relationship of acceptance has changed as the drug trade grew stronger and influenced a rise of violence.

Under increasing pressure from the governments, Christiania entered into talks of more normal integration with the city of Copenhagen. The Christianians remained suspicious of the governments' positions regarding greater access to the community with public utilities and vehicles, points which the governments argued were necessary in order to improve public sanitation and safety. Additionally, though the Christianians had, for their part, tried to reduce the trafficking of hard drugs, their efforts were too little in the eyes of Copenhagen and Denmark. While some progress was made, a climax came in 2004. In that year police raided Christiania in order to crack down on the drug market. Whatever success they had was barely noticeable during my visit.

Reading about Christiania in my guidebook made me curious enough to check it out. I expected to simply find a scruffy neighborhood adorned with innumerable Bob Marley, Che, and other similarly themed decorations. The fact that Christiania didn't appear on the city's official visitor's map told me something about it, but the reality of what I soon saw exceeded my expectations.

I entered Christiania from one of its two entrances. After leaving a nondescript street of Copenhagen, the path took me though a dusty lane and around an overgrown earthen mound and brick wall. Past all of these barriers, out of view from the street, begins the so-called "Pusherstreet," Christiania's main drag. Imagine a scene from a Hollywood movie depicting urban life in some post-Apocalyptic world, throw in a bit of Disneyland, and you start to develop an idea of what Christiania looks like. Colorful stalls and shacks lined Pusherstreet. The number of these rickety shops selling T-shirts seemed as many as those offering varieties of cannabis, the scent of which hung in the air. Paving on Pusherstreet was patchy at best. Litter floated in the rain puddles and festooned the weedy vegetation. The few trash cans available must have been a joke. Every dozen yards stood a steel barrel with a fire burning openly inside of it; dodgy assortments of people huddled around the barrels seeking warmth from the flames. Apparently any material that sparkled, shined, or added bright color was suitable to attach to building walls as art or decoration. The farther down Pusherstreet I strolled, the more my surroundings boasted their counterculture attitude.

At the end of Pusherstreet the path forked. To the right was an opening to what resembled an open air food court that was as decrepit as everything else I had seen. Here stalls sold vegetarian dishes and organic food. A stage rose from one end of the opening, but only a couple thick-bearded men sat on its edge. Back to the fork and to the left, the path led past some more buildings, ones that I can only assume were the original military barracks. An occasionally open front door provided glimpses into dimly lit rooms where I could only distinguish human forms and the glowing red ends of what were likely not mere cigarettes. At a few picnic tables outside of what looked like a bar, a few men sat, conversing in Danish and rolling marijuana joints. A mural on one wall caused me to stop and take notice. It read simply, "Common law of Christiania," and below the text were three depictions: two of clinched fists and one of a gun. Compared to this place, Amsterdam was a playground.

As striking as the physical setting was, so were the people moving about in it. For one thing, I had never seen such a diverse collection of all clean and grimy forms of alternative lifestyles. Most individuals standing around presented a grungy look, dressed in ragged clothes complete with the corresponding symbols of their respective extreme political and social views. Teenagers and young adults dressed themselves in punk outfits and the anarchist uniforms of nearly all black clothing. Older men and women wore colorful hippie clothes. Mixed in with these types were those who appeared homeless, street people in the true sense. And then there were the tourists. They stood out like most of the residents of Christiania would in a suburban shopping mall, and definitely did not go unnoticed by the Christianians. During my entire time in the community I sensed the eyes of the locals were on me. Through their looks they seemed to say that they knew I wasn't one of them, they would prefer for me not to be there, but permitted my presence because I could be a potential customer of their merchandise.

One can't take ten steps in any direction without seeing a hand-painted sign instructing visitors not to take photographs. Christianians will likely say that this rule exists to protect their privacy, which is probably true to an extent; however, I believe the full version is that they don't want any evidence that could link faces with the illegal activities in the community. Here, with this ban on photographs, is where my personal problems in Christiania began. Witnessing such a unique place, I couldn't bare to walk away without some documentation of it, no matter what a bunch of hippies tried to tell me. Of course, I wasn't foolish enough to take out my camera in the middle of Pusherstreet.

After I had seen enough of Christinia I returned to the boundary of the community, whence I had entered. From the last perspective where one could still have a view down Pusherstreet, before rounding the earthen mound, I stopped and looked around. No one seemed to be watching me. No one was close to me. This was my chance.

I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my camera. In defiance of a large "No Photos" sign directly facing me, I quickly turned on the camera, zoomed in, and snapped the picture. There was no angry mob, no yells. Feeling ambitious I tried to take a second picture, but in this moment the battery of my camera died. A bit disappointed, I returned the camera to my pocket and walked briskly to the exit, hearing what sounded like, "No photos!"

After the earthen mound I was within thirty feet of the street, almost back to civil society, when a young man looking about my age rode up on my left side on his bike and then abruptly cut off my path.

"Do you speak English?" he asked with a strong Danish accent.

I thought quickly. His reason for being there was clear. Perhaps if I pretended that I didn't speak English well he would become frustrated with trying to talk to me and leave me alone. The strategy usually worked with annoying panhandlers and souvenir-pushers in other European cities; it was worth a try.

"Oh, a little," I said with some fake accent. One advantage of teaching English in Germany is that I've become very familiar with the common grammar and pronunciation mistakes that non-native speakers make. In German, I next asked him if he spoke that language, assuming he didn't. He only stared at me for a second then continued to speak English.

He explained to me that photos weren't allowed in Christiania, and that he had seen me taking some.

"Ah, yes, um...sorry," I responded. "Uh, I go. I go." I stepped to the right and ahead to go around his bike and to the street, but he moved to block my path again. A brick wall and the mound prevented me from moving any farther in that direction. My assessment of the situation suddenly changed.

"No, no, no," said the man. "You have to delete the picture."

I briefly acted like I didn't understand, but that changed nothing. Knowing that I was dealing with a guy who had most likely already made some irrational choices in his life and that dozens of his friends were only a shout away, my better judgment won. A photo wasn't worth risking what he was potentially willing to doing.

Removing the camera from my pocket I held it so that only I could see the screen. I pushed the power switch into the on position, but nothing happened. Only then did I remember that the battery was dead. At first I thought this was good thing; I wouldn't be able to delete the picture. Then my thinking quickly reversed. What would he demand if I couldn't delete the picture?

"Uh," I looked up at the man. "The, the...battery...dead."

"What? No f---ing way. I don't believe you. You're f---ing with me. Give me the camera."

The tension immediately rose. My grip on the camera tightened. In my own firmer tone I told him again that the battery was dead, but he wouldn't believe me.

"Yes!" I extended the camera out slightly so that he could see the screen for himself. "On, off, on, off," I said as I moved the power switch between the two positions. "Nothing."

"No, no," he still refused to believe me. The man then reached his hand out so that he could push the switch himself. I held on to the camera with both hands. He pushed the switch into the on position so hard that for a moment I feared he might break it.

At that instant another voice from my rear announced the arrival of a second man. "Just delete the f---ing photo, man!"

I turned to my left to see this second man dismounting his bike. Now there was no way out. To my back was the wall, to my right the first man blocked my path to the street, the second man blocked my way to the second exit, and the direction to my left led only back to Christiania. I told the second man that the camera was dead, but he was just as incredulous as the first man.

"Yes, it's dead," I insisted. "On, off, on, off, nothing!" I yelled while showing the second man the camera screen, flipping the switch back and forth, and continuing my masquerade of poor English. I didn't know what to anticipate.

As suddenly as the confrontation had worsened, it ended. Both men took steps back.

"You're lucky today, I should take you camera," the first man said as he turned his bike around.

"Ya, learn to respect other people, man," the second man added in the greatest of ironies while following his friend.

I shouted back my own colorful expression in German and walked to the exit. Finally reaching the street, I quickly walked away with some stressed nerves.

In the end, the men were not willing to resort to any more drastic means in regards to the photograph and, in retrospect, it does seem understandable. The police detest Christiania. The government would prefer to raze it, but doesn't know how to proceed. But an attack on or theft from a foreign visitor could have been an excuse for the government to raid the community again. Perhaps these two punks, as damaged as their rationale is, might still have understood that. Then again, as damaged as their rationale is, maybe not.

Violence is certainly not unknown in Christiania. A quick look over the community's page on Wikipedia offers headlines describing shootings, a grenade attack, and riots, all in recent years. A Danish man in my hostel room told me later that night that police officers must enter Christiania in large groups due to safety concerns.

In light of these issues, one would expect the city to do more to warn tourists. Yet the tourists come to gawk at the spectacle that is Christiania. Perhaps for the reason that the community sits in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the safest areas of already safe Western Europe, visitors have a false sense of security there. I remember seeing a group of three college-aged American girls walking through Christiana, purses balanced on their shoulders, and saying that they should return that night to hang out in one of the bars. I also wonder what would have happened had I honestly not spoken English. I of course understood what the men wanted from me, but other foreigners wouldn't have been so lucky. Indeed, the city should do more to protect the tourists who wander Christiania's lanes with the ignorant illusions of being in a theme park-like atmosphere.

The experience also demonstrated to me the folly and short-sightedness of anarchism. A society that began as a peace-loving and well-intentioned one without laws has degraded to one of low living conditions, drug abuse, threatening methods, and the introduction of rules in order to control visitors who don't think like members of the society and to protect the own good of the locals. I surmise that Christianians can now be grouped into three main categories: the old hippies who likely helped to found the community and who still believe in its original goals but who now number in the minority, the potheads and druggies who only care about their next fix, and the anarchists who have taken over for their own profit and in the name of their political beliefs. Furthermore, not only does a capitalist market flourish in Christiania, but it is also one that offers cheap souvenirs and other junk for tourists. It appears that Christiania is today a society where personal interest, possibly in the form of profit from selling T-shirts or in the form of self-gratification through drugs, and one ideology preside--a stark contrast to the original concentrations on the greater good of the community and individuality.

To conclude, here is the cause for my problem in Christiania and the inspiration for this post, a simple photograph recorded before even coming into focus:

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