Tolerance Fades in Denmark as Christiania Free Town Faces New Era

(Photo courtesy of Jacob Wheeler)

In Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, young mothers breastfeed their babies or change diapers in the corner of a busy café. High school students binge drink after completing their exams in the spring. And sex is definitely a pleasure to be experienced early and often.

For decades, this cozy, if not somewhat provincial Scandinavian city has boasted an "anything goes" mentality — tolerating things that would make many Americans, puritan by comparison, squirm in their seats. Nowhere is this cultural distinction truer than in Christiania, Copenhagen's "free town," where approximately 1,000 squatters, hippies, and self-proclaimed deadbeats live in the old abandoned Christianshavn army barracks they occupied in 1971, declaring themselves independent of the Danish state around them.

The christianitter don't pay taxes directly to the Danish government, instead contributing into a common Christiania pool. Many have built unique and impressive houses along the lake in the rural part of the free town, paying no attention to the strict and uniform building codes enforced elsewhere in Copenhagen. And until recently, "soft" drugs like marijuana, hash, and psychedelic mushrooms were sold in the open market on Pusher Street, a narrow cobblestone path near the entrance to the free town with makeshift shanties serving as shops.

But Christiania may not have long to live. The drug pushers, many of whom lived outside the free town and left with their profits at the end of every day — thereby compromising the socialist ideals that birthed this community — recently succumbed to both inside and outside pressure and voluntarily burned down their shanties. Grass can still be purchased in Christiania, but now the transactions take place in the shadows under a cloud of paranoia. At any given time, a patrol of aggressive police officers may march into the free town and search or pat down whomever they choose, even tourists. Before Pusher Street was eliminated, a police raid typically met organized resistance in the form of sounding alarms and rocks the size of fists hurled toward them.

Now the right-of-center Danish government is pushing harder than ever to normalize Christiania.

"I applaud the Christianites' decision to clean up the area themselves," says minister of justice Lene Espersen, a member of the right-of-center Conservative Party currently in power. "But the government's stance has not changed. We want to see Christiania normalized."

The Palaces and Properties Agency under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance has drawn up a plan that would replace the free town with modern condominiums and expensive apartments, which would help relieve Copenhagen's current housing glut. The government has sought to involve Christiania in the process, but the free town operates under a consensus democracy, and change happens at a snail's pace here.

Perhaps more telling is how Christiania's impending normalization reflects Denmark, which is no longer seen around the world as a bastion of tolerance.

A Tough Year for Denmark

The allusions to the Muhammad cartoon crisis in Queen Margrethe's annual New Year's Eve speech to the nation were not so subtle. Her words hit home for a population still baffled by the images that flashed across their television screens last year as thousands of enraged Muslims burned Danish flags and embassies after the conservative paper Jyllands-Posten published several offensive depictions of the prophet the previous fall.

"How can they hate us," Denmark's collective voice seemed to ask, "when we've been a leader in tolerance, foreign aid, and immigrant welfare handouts for so long?"

But things have changed in cozy Denmark. A right-of-center government elected two months after the Sept. 11 attacks clamped down on immigration and asylum seekers. And Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's decision to join the "coalition of the willing" in 2003 gave Denmark the dubious distinction of being the only Scandinavian country to support the war in Iraq.

On a recent visit to Denmark I found that some aspects of its culture have begun to mirror the United States. Christmas has become more commercial than ever; economic disparity between rich and poor is growing, whereas Danes once prided themselves on a society of equals; even live telecasts of Sunday night NFL football have caught on in the land of Kierkegaard and Legos.

Needless to say, this globalization and capitalization of Danish culture doesn't bode well for Christiania.

"A place like Christiania couldn't have happened anywhere but Denmark," says Malene Torp, a professor of Danish politics and society at Copenhagen University. "We let a left-wing group move in and take over a military area. Most other countries would have kicked the people out within two days."

Two underlining Danish traits allowed Christiania to grow, she says: tolerance and conflict shyness.

"Tolerance is something you always connect with Denmark on a positive level. But our conflict shyness is more pragmatic. If we don't have to make a decision on a matter, just to avoid a confrontation, we'll sit on it," Torp says.

If recent events are any indication, however, Danes are no longer conflict shy.

The provocative cartoons printed in Jyllands-Posten, for instance, were an attempt to facilitate debate among the 100,000 or so Muslims living in Denmark, even if they hurt feelings and amounted to blasphemy against a religion.

Christiania, too, may suffer from the country's newfound aggressiveness.

"The conservative governments are carrying out populist measures," Torp says. "Citizens are concerned about issues like crime and drugs, so that's what the politicians and the police are addressing."

A Paradox

Francesco and Luther sit on milk crates in front of an ecological bakery on a sunny Tuesday. One tickles notes on the saxophone while the other puffs on a marijuana joint. Then they switch.

(Photo courtesy of Jacob Wheeler)

"Some people call my music jazz, some call it blues or soul. I say it's just free. Christiania music," says Luther, an African American who moved to Denmark years ago because he "met a sweet Danish girl."

Francesco's story is not as smooth. He left home at 15 and drifted around until he found Christiania, which has always been home to many vagabonds. Francesco still ties bags of clothing to his bicycle, but today he is not homeless. Christiania, in his eyes, is open and accepts everyone.

Or at least it used to.

Michel, a Swede who has lived here since 1988, admits that this onetime socialist paradise has become a paradox. Drifters can no longer settle in the free town because it has filled up, he says.

"I was lucky," Michel says. "I got a resident card because I told them I was seeking 'humanitarian asylum from the outside world!' "

Settlers in the early days built their own houses in Christiania's vast wooded area or renovated the drab old army barracks. Their right to build as they chose epitomized the freedom Christiania has enjoyed. But moving in now is difficult.

A Danish documentary filmmaker hammered home that point recently when he turned up unannounced and began building a wooden hut in a vacant area of the free town, just to see what would happen. Sure enough, an aggressive pusher cornered him immediately and threatened to beat him up if the experiment didn't stop.

More Than Just Drugs

Christiania has always been known throughout Europe as the "drug haven of the north," and for good reason. Pusher Street's visibility and the way it flaunted Denmark's liberal drug laws was why Christiania became Copenhagen's second most popular tourist attraction before the shanties were hauled away and burned. Pusher Street was also the free town's Achilles' heel, inviting violent Hell's Angels biker gangs, police raids and controversy in the local media.

But lost amid the cloud of North African hashish smoke is the reality that Christiania has always been about much more than drugs. In fact, Pusher Street was only a very small part of the free town.

To me, a Danish-American who was born in this country and grew up in the Midwest, visiting Christiania was a homecoming of sorts. My father left the United States during the Vietnam War and its cultural black hole, and his hippy wanderings led him to Christiania, without a dime in his pocket and sporting a giant Afro. My mother was a social worker, originally from the Danish mainland called Jutland, who moved to the free town to study the inhabitants and whether this social experiment really could exist.

They met at Spiseloppen — probably Christiania's first legitimate restaurant that served more than just junk food for those who were stoned. She was a waitress. He had no papers, so he worked under the table, hauling crates of beer up to the second floor, and toted empty bottles down again. They met, fell in love, and lived in Christiania for about nine months before returning to the outside world.

When my parents visited Christiania again decades later, they were amazed at how much culture and non-drug related activities the free town had to offer. My father also laughed at the fact that Spiseloppen is now a classy restaurant, lit by candlelight and including an elevator that would have saved him countless labor hours in the early 70's.

There's plenty more entertainment for the visitor who doesn't want to fill his lungs with cannabis. Duck into the Children's Theater jazz club on a Tuesday or Thursday night and you'll find the mood mellow and inspiring. Bring your own instrument, and you'll avoid paying the $5 cover charge. If you're there in December, visit the charming Christmas Market in the massive Grey Hall, which has been painted over with rainbows since the squatters moved in. A stone's throw away is the communal bathhouse where both christianitter and outsiders sauna together, some caking their bodies in soothing Turkish mud, before they visit the eclectic and inexpensive vegetarian restaurant Morgenstedet across the dirt path.


The Christiania free town is located on Prinsessegade in the Christianshavn region of Copenhagen. Take the city's new metro to Christianshavn Torv and walk east three blocks or jump on bus number 66. Tours last 1 hour 45 minutes and cost 30 Danish crowns (approximately $5) per person, with a minimum of six people needed for a tour. Call 011-45-3257-6005 or visit for more information.

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