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Freetown Christiania

Christiania, also known as Freetown Christiania (Danish: Fristaden Christiania) is a partially self-governing neighbourhood of about 850 residents, covering 34 hectares (85 acres) in the borough of Christianshavn in the Danish capital Copenhagen. Christiania has established semi-legal status as an independent community, but has been a source of controversy since its creation in a squatted military area in 1971. Its open cannabis trade was tolerated by authorities until 2004. Since then, measures for normalising the legal status of the community have led to conflicts, and negotiations are ongoing.

Among many Christiania residents, the community is known as staden ('the town'), short for fristaden ('the freetown').

History

Barracks and ramparts

The area of Christiania consists of the former military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde and parts of the city ramparts. The ramparts and the borough of Christianshavn (then a separate city) were established in 1617 by King Christian IV by reclaiming the low beaches and islets between Copenhagen and Amager. After the siege of Copenhagen during the harsh wars with Sweden, the ramparts were reinforced during 1682 to 1692 under Christian V to form a complete defence ring. The western ramparts of Copenhagen were demolished during the 19th century, but those of Christianshavn were allowed to remain. They are today considered among the finest surviving 17th century defence works in the world.

The barracks of Bådsmandsstræde (Bådsmandsstrædes Kaserne) housed the Royal Artillery Regiment, the Army Materiel Command and ammunition laboratories and depots. Less used after World War II, the barracks were abandoned during 1967 to 1971.

The adjacent area to the north, Holmen, was Denmark's main naval base until the 1990s. It is an area in development, home to the new Copenhagen Opera House (not to be confused with the original Operaen - a concert venue in Christiania) and several artistic schools.

Building and area protection

In 2007, the National Heritage Agency proposed protection status for some of the ancient military buildings, now in Christiania. These are:

  • Den grå hal ('The grey hall'), formerly a riding house with a unique Bohlendach roof construction, now Christiania's largest concert venue)
  • Den grønne hal ('The green hall'), originally a smaller riding house
  • Mælkebøtten ('The dandelion')
  • The Commander's house, a half-timbered building
  • The 17th and 18th century powder magazines on the bastions.

Some of the historic buildings have been altered somewhat after Christiania's takeover.

Founding of Christiania

After the military had left, the area was only guarded by a few watchmen and there was sporadic trespassing of homeless people to the empty buildings. On 4 September, 1971, inhabitants of the surrounding neighbourhood broke down the fence to take over parts of the area as a playground for their children.

Although the takeover was not necessarily organised in the beginning, some claim this happened as a protest against the Danish government. At the time there was a lack of affordable housing in Copenhagen.

On 26 September, 1971, Christiania was declared open by Jacob Ludvigsen, a well-known provo and journalist who published a magazine called Hovedbladet ('The main paper'), which was intended for and successfully distributed to mostly young people. In the paper, Ludvigsen wrote an article in which he and five others went on exploration into what he termed 'The Forbidden City of the Military'. The article widely announced the proclamation of the free town, and among other things he wrote the following under the headline Civilians conquered the 'forbidden city' of the military:

Christiania is the land of the settlers. It is the so far biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch - while nevertheless still incorporating the remaining constructions. Own electricity plant, a bath-house, a giant athletics building, where all the seekers of peace could have their grand meditation - and yoga center. Halls where theater groups can feel at home. Buildings for the stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race...Yes for those who feel the beating of the pioneer heart there can be no doubt as to the purpose of Christiania. It ıs the part of the city which has been kept secret to us - but no more.

Ludvigsen was co-author of Christiania's mission statement, dating from 1971, which offers the following:

The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.

The spirit of Christiania quickly developed into one of the hippie movement, the squatter movement, collectivism and anarchism, in contrast to the site's previous military use.

The Community

Meditation and yoga have always been popular among the Christianites, and for many years Christiania had their own internationally acclaimed theater group Solvognen, who, beyond their theater performances, also staged many happenings in Copenhagen and even throughout Sweden. Ludvigsen had always talked of the acceptance of drug-addicts who could no longer cope with regular society, and the spirit of that belief has still not diminished, even throughout many problems sprouted due to drug traffic and use (mostly of hard drugs, however, which are illegal in Christiania). These addicts enter and remain in Christiania and are considered just as integral to the Freetown ethic as the entrepreneurs. For this reason many Danes have seen Christiania as a successful social experiment. However, for years the legal status of the region has been in a limbo due to different Danish governments attempting to remove the Christianites. Such attempts at removal have all been unsuccessful so far.

The neighbourhood is accessible through many entrances and cars are not allowed (although some Christiania residents own a car, see below). Danish authorities have repeatedly removed the large stones blocking the main entrance claiming they need access to the area for fire trucks and ambulances in the event of a fire or medical emergency, yet the residents respond by placing them back each time as they feel suspicious that the authorities will instead use it for police operations. This suspicion is backed by the fact that they have already made arrangements with the Copenhagen Fire Department, which also operates the ambulances in Copenhagen, and have established other entranceways and maneuvering spaces for fire trucks and ambulances in the area.

The people in Christiania have developed their own set of rules, independently of the Danish government. The rules forbid stealing, violence, guns, knives, bulletproof vests and hard drugs.

Famous for its main drag, known as Pusher Street, where hash and Skunk weed were sold openly from permanent stands until 2004, it nevertheless does have rules forbidding hard drugs, such as cocaine, speed, ecstasy and heroin. The commerce is controversial, but since the rules require a consensus they cannot be removed unless everybody agrees. The region negotiated an arrangement with the Danish defence ministry (which still owns the land) in 1995. Since 1994, residents have paid taxes and fees for water, electricity, trash disposal, etc. The future of the area remains in doubt, though, as Danish authorities continue to push for its removal. On Pusher Street, cameras are not allowed, and locals will wave their hands and shout "No photo!" if they see someone trying to take a picture.

Recent controversies

Partly as a consequence of the government's normalization plans, there have been increasing protests and conflicts in and around Christiania. See below: Further development

Riots over demolition of house

On May 14, 2007 workers from the governmental Forest and Nature Agency, accompanied by police, entered Christiania to demolish leftovers of the small, abandoned building of Cigarkassen ('the cigar box'). They were met by angry and scared Christianites who feared that the police were going to demolish other houses too. Road blocks were built and the trucks transporting what was left of the house were sabotaged so that they could not move. The police then entered the Freetown on a massive scale and were this time met by violent protesters who threw stones and shot fireworks at the police vehicles, and built barricades in the street outside the Christiania gate. The police used tear gas on the rioters, and a number of arrests were made. One activist sneaked up behind the police commander, and poured a bucket of urine and faeces over him. The police later had to retreat from Christiania. The riot continued over night as youths barricaded the entrances to Christiania and bombarded the police with stones and Molotov cocktails. After several failed attempts to storm the barricades the police ultimately had to give up and retreat. All in all over 50 activists from Christiania and outside were arrested. Prosecutors are demanding that they are imprisoned on the basis that they might otherwise participate in further disturbances in Copenhagen, which they claim themselves is "in a state of rebellion.

2005 shooting and murder

On April 24, 2005, a 26-year-old Christiania resident was killed and three other residents injured in a violent gang assault on Pusher Street. The reason for this was a feud over the hash market of Copenhagen.

After the open hash trade was ended in Christiania the year before, criminal circles outside Christiania were eager to take over the market. Those responsible for the shooting were one such gang, primarily of immigrants from Nørrebro, a northwestern borough of the city. They had repeatedly asked the Christiania pushers to allow them on their market and had repeatedly been turned down. On April 23, 2005, this stalemate escalated violently. The pushers of Christiania discovered that a member of the outside gang had infiltrated their organisation by dating a female pusher. He was exposed and just barely escaped - two shots were fired at him. The next day two cars pulled up outside Christiania and 6–8 masked men with automatic weapons got out and headed for Pusher Street. When they arrived they fired at least 35 heavy rounds indiscriminately toward the crowd, killing one Christianite and injuring three others.

Some saw this tragic incident as a sign that the future survival of the community was dubious due to the risk of violence stemming from the hash-market. Others blamed the incident on the fragmentation of the Copenhagen hash market and its expansion to the rest of the city, brought about by the measures of the Anders Fogh Rasmussen government. See below: Drugs

2004 TV feature

The political satirical TV show Den halve sandhed ("The half truth") featured Christiania in its March 26, 2004, episode. As a tongue-in-cheek action, a journalist started to erect a small wooden hut in one of Christiania's open areas, naively claiming he assumed everyone could settle in the freetown.

Within minutes, Christiania residents arrived and told him this was totally unacceptable. The journalist was violently threatened to make himself scarce. Other residents, however, took the time to peacefully explain Christiania building rules (approval by the community meeting is needed for construction). Later, journalists set up a stall attempting to sell 'non-politically correct' products such as Coca-Cola and Israeli oranges, arguing this was no worse than selling cannabis to minors.

Designed by Danmarks Radio to test Christiania's tolerance towards the outside world, the feature did not amuse the residents. Proponents of Christiania have defended the hostile behavior seen in the show. Allegedly, the background is that the current political situation forces Christiania to have a moratorium on construction work, unless police officers should come and take things down forcibly. A complete moratorium on construction was a precondition for the state to enter the current negotiations. Nils Vest, a film director resident in Christiania, has accused the TV programme of being tendentious and biased. Others have taken the episode as a proof of faded collectivist ideals and bigotry within Christiania.

Cars

Within Christiania itself no cars are allowed. However, a total of 132 cars are owned by residents and need to be parked on the streets surrounding the Freetown. After negotiating with city authorities, Christiania has agreed to establish parking areas for residents' own cars on its territory. As of 2005, parking space for only 14 cars had been established within the area.

Before the city council elections of November 2001, residents in one of Christiania's sections proposed a municipal kindergarten just outside Christiania should be torn down and moved some hundred meters away, the area being turned into a parking lot. The proposal was criticised by other Christiania residents and citizens in the borough, but proponents claimed the wooden kindergarten buildings were outdated anyway and the parking space issue needed to be solved before Christiania itself would turn into an area where cars were widely parked. It has also been claimed that taxis and police vehicles add to the traffic problems.

Gay House

Since the 1970s the Gay House (Bøssehuset), one of Christiania's autonomous institutions, had been a center for gay activism, parties and theatre. The humorous and artistically high-ranking variety-style shows still have fame among Copenhagen homosexuals. However, when the original pioneers began aging or dying in the 1980s and 1990s, the house became less used and was empty from about 2000 onwards.

In 2002 a group of young gay performers and activists, Dunst, were invited to take over the house so it could remain a centre for gay activity. Dunst introduced democratic management and established open workshops for photography, art, music, dance, video etc. They also arranged three 'Save Christiania' nights, a cabaret show and three support parties in order to be able to pay down some of the Gay House's debt to Christiania. According to Dunst, however, neighbours would never readily accept them and the newcomers were accused of not understanding "the Christiania lifestyle". Dunst claim they received verbal abuse, threatening letters and even in one instance, had a baseball bat brandished against them. Some disliked Dunst's loud parties, their contemporary electro-punk style music being described as techno. After 9 months, they were asked to leave Christiania again.

In 2004 Dunst participated in 'Christiania Distortion', an event supportive of Christiania. As they could not make use of the Gay House, Dunst's part of the event took place in a bus circling around Christiania.

Drugs

Since its opening, Christiania has been famous for its open cannabis trade, taking place in the aptly named and centrally located 'Pusher Street'. Although illegal, authorities were for many years reluctant to forcibly stop the hash trade. Proponents thought that concentrating the hash trade at one place would limit its dispersion in society, and that it could prevent users from switching to harder drugs. Some wanted to legalize hash altogether. Opponents thought the ban should be enforced, in Christiania as elsewhere, and that there should be no differentiation between 'soft' and 'hard' drugs. It has also been claimed that the open cannabis trade was one of Copenhagen's major tourist attractions, while some said it scared other potential tourists away. Since 2003, however, the officially open hash trade has been ended by measures of the authorities, but more or less the covert trade of hash and harder drugs still abounds.

Eviction of hard drugs

One of the very biggest community accomplishments in the history of Christiania was the 'junk blockade' in November 1979. The government was still very hostile but the community faced other acute challenges as well. Many Christiania residents were interested in mind-altering techniques, including psychotropic substances. During the late 1970s hard drugs such as heroin were considered permissible, but this had grave consequences. In one year, from 1978 to 1979, ten people had died in Christiania from drug overdose; four of them were residents there. Most of them lived in a building called 'The Arc of Peace', which was in an extreme level of disrepair. Doors were missing, there were holes in the floors, and in most rooms there were no furniture except mattresses. It was a terribly unhealthy environment and the Christianites became increasingly aware that the situation could not continue.

An attempt was made to cooperate with the police in order to get rid of the heroin pushers, which was something many Christianites felt extremely uncomfortable about due to their anarchical tradition and the continuous clashes between Christiania and the police. Despite the shared feelings of distrust, however, some Christianites felt there was no other way to fix such problem, and supplied the police with a list of suspected hard drug networks. The intention of the Christianites' decision was made very clear: police were to concentrate only on hard drugs. This did not happen, and instead the police ignored the Christianites' requests and made a large crackdown only on the hash network, oddly leaving the heroin ring untouched.

Feeling betrayed and bitter the Christianites decided not to cooperate any further with the authorities, and instead launched what was to be known as the Junk Blockade. For 40 days and nights the Christianites—men, women, and children—patrolled 'The Arc of Peace' and whenever they found junkies or pushers they gave them an ultimatum: either quit all activities with hard drugs or leave Christiania. In the end, the pushers were forced to leave, and sixty people entered drug rehabilitation.

Biker gang eviction

Around 1984 a biker gang arrived in Christiania and took control of a part of the hash market. Violence in the neighborhood increased and many Christianites felt unsafe and unhappy with the new residents. This resulted in sabotage acts directed towards the bikers as well as the publication of several provocative manuscripts urging the Christianites to throw out the powerful and armed bikers. This tension culminated when the police found a murdered individual who had been sliced to pieces and buried beneath the floor of a building. Christiania reacted with two colossal community meetings—one outside the building—where it was agreed that the bikers had to leave. They did, and have never returned.

End of open cannabis trade

Since its opening in 1971, the open drugs trade of Christiania was a thorn in the side of Danish authorities, a constant source of public discussion, and led to protests from neighbouring countries as well (especially Sweden with its no-tolerance drug policy). When the centre-right cabinet of Anders Fogh Rasmussen took office in 2001, one of its promises was to end illegal activities at Christiania. However, in 2008 and onward, only hash sale is allowed, NO hard drugs are allowed or sold in Christiania.

In 2002, the government began aiming to make the hash trade less visible. In response, the hash sellers covered their stands in military camouflage nets as a humorous reply. On January 4, 2004, the stands were finally demolished by the hash dealers a day before a large scale police operation. They knew about this operation, and decided to take the stands down themselves. The police made more than twenty arrests in the following weeks, and a large part of the organised dealer network of Pusher Street was then eliminated. Critics claim, however, that this did not stop the hash trade, it merely caused the trade to relocate outside of Christiania and to change to being on a person-to-person basis. Before they were demolished, the National Museum of Denmark was able to get one of the more colourful stands, which is now part of an exhibit.

On March 16, 2004, the police raided the area. Allegedly, many dealers started to move huge amounts of hash out into Copenhagen and the rest of the country instead. This was done in order to avoid the heavy police-presence in Christiania and to meet the demand for hash by customers. According to both police and other sources the number of hash clubs in Copenhagen grew rapidly to at least five times as many as before the police crackdown on Pusher Street, and in these clubs the sale of hash was mixed with other drugs such as amphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy and GHB. Especially in northwesterns part of the city (Nørrebro and the Nordvest borough) many clubs arrived and were controlled by armed gangs who had long tried to enter the hash sales on Christiania. The gang responsible for the shootings of 2005 were one of these. See above: 2005 shooting and murder

Before 2003, hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine, had been ruled out of Christiania since 1979 by the community's own rules. Since then, though, it is becoming clear that driving the hash trade underground has now blurred the line between the sale of Cannabis and the sale of hard drugs. Previously, stringent community oversight into what was being dealt kept the two separate. Now time has lead to dealers pushing what is most profitable; heavily addictive hard drugs, as well as hash, endangering the openness and ability for tourists to feel comfortable buying Cannabis. This does not just affect the tourists, but the locals of Copenhagen as well. Without contacts in the drug trade, many came to Christiania to buy Cannabis for recreational use in a low risk environment, without possibly being offered hard drugs. Now that situation is changing.

Businesses

Christiania has become home to several ventures such as carpenters, blacksmiths, a bikeshop, as well as several cafés, restaurants, jazz, blues and night clubs.

Further development

The open cannabis trade in Christiania has been hailed by some Danes and seen as a source of constant annoyance by others, the current centre-right government is taking a number of steps to enforce the law in Christiania. The first step in this process was a police crackdown on the cannabis trade. Both politicians and police have declared that the cannabis trade will not be allowed to return. The second (and currently ongoing) phase is the registration of all buildings in Christiania. The third step will be the demolition of a number of wooden private residences situated in a nature-preserved area (the historic naval fortress of Copenhagen). These buildings had all been approved by the authorities before the new government passed the current law on Christiania. For the last 15 years the government has not allowed construction in Christiania. This is now being enforced as a zero-tolerance policy with the help of a massive police presence. This is regarded by Christiania community as a government strategy to undermine the collective self-government of Christiania. They believe the government is planning to sell out building rights to private enterprises , in an attempt to force the freetown to accept the paradigm of private ownership and market capitalization of private property. The 900 or so inhabitants of Christiania have staked a claim for collective rights of use to all of Christiania, but this has been ignored by the government..

Governmental normalisation measures

In 2004, the Danish government passed a law abolishing the collective and treating its 900 members as individuals. Beginning in the summer of 2005, a series of protests have been staged by Christiania members. During the same time, Danish police have made frequent sweeps of the area.

The Christiania Café Månefiskeren installed an outdoor countboard of police patrols on Christiania in November 2005. In the summer of 2006 this passed the 1000th patrol (about 4–6 patrols a day). These patrols normally consist of 6 to 20 police officers, often dressed in combat uniform and sometimes with police dogs.

This has, however, not affected the street prices of cannabis in- or out-side of Christiania. There has been no notable change in the rate of "regular crime" in the area.

In January 2006, the government proposed that Christiania would be turned into a mixed alternative community and residential area adding condominiums for 400 new residents. Current residents, now paying DKK 1450 (USD 250) per month, would be allowed to remain but need to begin paying normal rent for the facilities, albeit below market rent levels. Christiania has rejected this scenario, fearing the freetown would turn into a normal Copenhagen neighbourhood. In particular, the concept of privately owned dwellings is claimed to be incompatible with Christiania's collective ownership.

Quotes from politicians

Christiania-spokesperson for the Conservative (governmental) Party, Christian Wedell-Neergaard:

"Christiania is a dwelling for people who wish to live in a different manner...But it is crucial that varied ownership-models are introduced, so that there will be both private and partially owned houses."

or

"(Christiania's) demand that there be a collective fund is not fair, It doesn't meet the wish for a normalization. We (the government) have emphazised that there should be varied ownership-models, such as private ownership."

or

"...it is natural that there are also privately owned buildings in an area like Christiania...Because it is the case for the surrounding society in general, that there are variety in the ownership." (all quotes from Politiken, 29 January 2006, pg.6)

or

the Minister of Finance, Thor Pedersen, from the government-party Left (Venstre), who to the question in parliament whether the new buildings at Christiania were only economically motivated, answered:

"It is a political priority that there be build new houses as suggested, to ensure a development of the Christiania-area with varied ownership-models." (Information, 6 June 2006, pg.3)

Architectural competition

In order to present a reasonable use of area after an eventual "cleaning", the Danish government commissioned an architectural competition. 17 proposals were received, of which only eight have met the formal competition requirements. All of the proposals were rejected by the panel of judges. The cost of the architectural competition was 850,000 Danish Kroner (113,900 EUR, 177,700 USD, 89,500 GBP).

Christiania's development plan

Christiania has countered the government's plans for normalization with its own community driven planning proposal , which after 8 months of internal workshops and meetings gained consensus at the common meeting before being published in early 2006. Christiania's own development plan was awarded the Initiative Award of the Society for the Beautification of Copenhagen in November 2006 and the plan has received positive attention from the municipality of Copenhagen and the Agenda 21 Society for its sustainability goals and democratic process.

See also

References

External links

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