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In Christiana in Copenhagen
In Christiana, Copenhagen's anarchist bastion

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October 2007 Email this to a friend
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Christiania Hangs On
Its public face is radical, druggy, edgy, young, male, confrontative, and embattled. The setting contrasts bucolic with post-apocalyptic. Can this semi-autonomous social experiment survive in today's chillier political climate?
By Staff reports

Denmark's reputation as a socially progressive society was confirmed in the 1960s with legal reforms that, for instance, decriminalized most kinds of pornography in 1969. But today's Venstre/Conservative coalition government is not as tolerant in some ways as previous ones, despite Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's personal support for issues such as gay marriage. His government has been a staunch ally of the Bush administration's war policies.

Freetown Christiania's survival is one flashpoint of controversy. The former military barracks and surrounding waterfront lands have been home to a semi-autonomous community for the past 36 years. The communally-held property is everywhere colorfully daubed with graffiti art, and its green open spaces have been a retreat for outsiders, artists, and others, who have dropped in here seeking relief from economic pressures, and to try out new ideas and social groupings. This longtime and ad-hoc social experiment, permitted to flourish under previous administrations, is now threatened by governmental reversals and plans to retake the central area for conventional, market-driven development.

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ince police shut down "pusher street," the open hash smoking is slightly more discreet among the throng of mostly young males in "downtown" Christiania. The National Museum acquired one of the more colorful hash stands from the old days, and the hash dealers themselves moved back under the trees. Remaining stalls sell head-shop items, beads, t-shirts, and other counter-culture stuff. Hard drugs are not tolerated, but the community makes a point of not rejecting addicts as individuals, accepting them as part of the social fabric.

One nearby building houses a Tibetan Buddhist meditation area, adorned with pictures of the Dalai Lama and selling "Save Christiania" buttons. In another structure there's a skateboarder's heaven of ramps and bowls. At the open-air bar/restaurant, unconventional is the norm -- for both customers and staff. Tourists pass through, as if crossing a movie set -- but without their cameras, as photography is discouraged, for obvious reasons.

Gay House stands empty these days. The original founders either died or moved away, and the Dunst queer group, members of which tried to live there recently, didn't fit in (something about style, or clashes in music preference, were the reasons given, glossing over, I suspect, something deeper). So they moved on, to do their thing elsewhere.

More politically motivated and confrontational folk were involved in protests last March against the forced demolition of Ungdomshuset (Youth House) in Nørrebro, a multi-ethnic neighborhood with a multitude of shops and restaurants. The building, which served as an alternative community center, was the site for the Second International, and was visited by both Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. A series of demonstrations this September in memory of the building resulted in more clashes with police.

Whatever results from these wranglings, at least there is still debate among people here, outside the box of consumerism. It's a place where fear-mongering politicians, the conventional demons, saints, and the European Union are all challenged. Men piss on walls in public as well as hold hands together, and mothers don't clasp hands over children's eyes at the sight of either. Christiania's gritty truth doesn't make it into the travel fluff about Copenhagen's Little Mermaid and Royal Danish pottery -- all of which is nice, but remains the stuff of theme parks. Like H.C. Andersen's fairytales or the monsters on the Stock Exchange building, there's that something else beneath the calm surface here, something that's strangled at birth elsewhere. Some lingering Viking orneriness?

Vikings raided and terrorized Europe, but latter-day Danes became a model for tolerant coexistence. The spirit of the '60s took root and survived longer here than almost anywhere else, making the city's name synonymous with social change. Forces of reaction threaten that reputation with bulldozers, but for now Copenhagen still hangs loose.

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