Denmark's 'freetown' Christiania hangs onto soul, 50 years on

Christiania marks its 50th anniversary with a parade from the free town to the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen on Sept 22, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

COPENHAGEN (AFP) - A refuge for anarchists, hippies and artists, Denmark's "freetown" Christiania turns 50 on Sunday, and though it has not completely avoided the encroachment of modernity and capitalism, its free-wheeling soul remains intact.

Nestled in the heart of Copenhagen, Christiania is seen by some as a progressive social experiment, while others simply see it as a den of drugs.

On Sept 26, 1971, a band of guitar-laden hippies transformed an abandoned army barracks in central Copenhagen into their home. They raised their "freedom flag" and named their new home "Christiania, Freetown" after the part of the city where it is located.

They wanted to establish an alternative society, guided by the principles of peace and love, where decisions were made collectively and laws were not enforced.

Soft drugs were freely available, and repurposing, salvaging and sharing was favoured over buying new.

It was a community "that belonged to everybody and to no one", says resident Ole Lykke, who moved into the 34ha enclave in the 1970s.

These principles remain well-rooted today, but the area has changed in many ways: tourists weave through its cobblestone roads, and the once-reviled market economy is in full swing.

Perhaps most importantly, it is no longer a squat. Residents became legal landowners when they bought some of the land from the Danish state in 2012.

Now it is home to some 900 people, many artists and activists, along with restaurants, cafes and shops, popular among the half a million tourists that visit annually.

"The site is more 'normal'," says the 75-year-old Lykke, who is slender with ruffled silver hair and who passionately promotes Christiania, its independence and thriving cultural scene.

Legislation has been enforced since 2013 - though a tongue-in-cheek sign above the exit points out that those leaving the area will be entering the European Union.

'Embrace change'

It is Christiania's ability to adapt with the times that has allowed it to survive, says University of Newcastle professor of social geography engagement Helen Jarvis.

"Christiania is unique," says Prof Jarvis, who lived in Christiania in 2010. "(It) endures because it continues to evolve and embrace change".

Some of those changes would have been unthinkable at the start.

People take part in a parade to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Christiana, in Copenhagen on Sept 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Residents secured a bank loan for several million euros to be able to buy the land, and now Christiania is run independently through a foundation.

They also now pay wages to the around 40 people employed by Christiania, including trash collectors and daycare workers.

"Money is now very important," admits Mr Lykke, who is an archivist and is currently exhibiting 100 posters chronicling Christiania's history at a Copenhagen museum.

But it has not forgotten its roots.

"Socially and culturally, Christiania hasn't changed very much," he says, noting that the community's needs still come first.

'Judged a little'

Christiania has remained a cultural hub - before the coronavirus pandemic almost two dozen concerts were held every week and its theatres were packed.

But it is still beset by its reputations as a drugs hub.

Though parts of Christiania are tranquil, lush and green with few buildings, others are bustling, with a post office, mini-market, healthcare centre and Pusher Street, the notorious drug market.

Mr Lykke says it is a side of Christiania most could do without.

"Most of us would like to get rid of it. But as long as (marijuana use) is prohibited, as long as Denmark doesn't want to decriminalise or legalise, we will have this problem," says Mr Lykke.

While still officially illegal, soft drugs like marijuana and hash are tolerated - though not in excess.

Since early last year, the Copenhagen police have seized more than one tonne of cannabis and more than a million euros.

"Sometimes I don't tell people that I live here because you get judged a little bit. Like, 'Oh, you must be into marijuana and you must be a smoker'," says 34-year-old photographer Anemone.

For others, Christiania's relaxed nature is part of the appeal.

"It's different from what I know, I really want to see it," laughs Czech teacher Mirka, who has come to have a look around.

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