During my initial visit to Copenhagen in July of 2009 my host made sure that Christiania was part of the two-day whirlwind tour. The small freetown of Christiania is a fascinating place. With a history that dates back to the 70s, the town considers itself an autonomous kommune completely independent of the Danish Government. This, despite being situated on what was in the early 70s, an abandoned Danish military base, in the very heart of Denmark’s capital.
The freetown, which has become most famous for its green light district called Pusher’s Street and the open sale of marijuana, was far more than just that. It was a fantastic artist community awash in creative and earthy experiments. It was not only safe, but felt it as well. All while being family-friendly and the type of place where everyone congregated – be it businessmen in suits, families with young children, or the typical crop-cut washout thug.
I remember my first brush with Christiania. At that point the global landscape and Christiania itself were vastly different than today. Today, large swaths of the US have legalized weed and we’ve seen a massive shift across the western world in how weed is handled and viewed. However, in July of 2009, all of that seemed a long way off and quite unlikely. As someone who had never found weed overly attractive, and definitely not worth the potential hassle or risk posed by it in the US, it wasn’t something I’d been exposed to much. I have to admit, that I didn’t even know there was a difference between weed and hash until I was 22 and on my grand post-college European solo trip. So, you can imagine my wide-eyed shock as we entered Christiania in the peak of summer and I found myself face-to-face with one of the most relaxed and blatant weed and hash markets in the world.
As my friend guided me through Christiania I found myself taking in the whole of the freetown. The paths were largely dirt or old cobblestones. Buildings were covered in artistic graffiti and common spaces were overflowing with junk-turned art. The entire place oozed hippy charm and a relaxed creative environment. As we neared Pusher’s Street, the general vendors selling nicknacks, hemp bracelets, and braided jewelry gave way to relaxed vendors who were smiling, friendly, and casually sitting behind large tables overflowing with various tubs of weed and bricks of hash. After years of conditioning in the US, I felt a bit skittish, but was also fascinated by Pusher’s Street. It was anything but the shady deal-with-a-criminal-washout-in-a-dark-alley-at-11 o’clock-at-night mental image that I’d been indoctrinated with in the US. No, instead – this felt more like a Sunday morning swapmeet.
As we walked the length of Pusher’s Street and neared the end, we turned to the right and entered an equally bizarre place called Nemoland. With a large curved sign at the entrance, it was an open air food court overflowing with greenery, creative sculptures, and the sound of people relaxing and enjoying themselves. Here again, children, business people, the elderly, and the more traditional druggie-washouts were mixing and mingling on wooden picnic benches. Many were playing backgammon or cards. At that point Nemoland felt very organic. Very natural. Very green. With a gravel floor and low hanging plants everywhere. I think my favorite part was the wonderful assortment of creative sculptures integrated with the greenery. Even years later, I remember a beautiful sword-in-the-stone and a fantastic oriental tower which stood out from the rest and gave Nemoland a wonderlandish ambiance.
We grabbed some food – which was reasonably priced and came with a hearty portion – before heading over and relaxing on one of the benches. As I ate and watched plumes of smoke drift lazily into the air from the benches around us, I was taken by how natural, how friendly, and how organic Christiania felt. Later we delved deeper into Christiania and it was only then that I started to truly understand the size and scope of the community.
You see, behind the wall of overgrown plants and wonderful greenery that serves as an unofficial barrier between Nemoland, Pusher’s Street, and the rest of Christiania, is an earthy hippy community ruled by absolute democracy that serves as home to around 900 residents. It’s a quasi socialist/communistic/libertarian experiment that allows creatives to live and let live while fostering artistic work and compassionate living. There are schools, bike-shops, cafes, vegan restaurants, speakeasy theaters, and even a stable … all of which makes Christiania so much more than just another place to buy weed. For a while, the weed and hash market was there to enable an organic and relaxed lifestyle. Now, I find myself wondering if the roles haven’t reversed and if it is not the community that struggles along there merely to justify the highly profitable soft drug market.
The Fall of Christiania
Fast forward to 2011 when I moved to Denmark. When I eventually made it back to Christiania I could already sense that things were changing. There was talk of Christiania’s birthday and tensions with the government were rising. Where for years Christiania had generally been left alone as a social experiment, more conservative factions within the Government had pushed for crackdowns. This meant police raids and shows of force that did far more harm than good. You see, despite Denmark’s progressive nature, weed and hash are still very much illegal in Denmark and strangely, while the rest of the world has done a rapid about-face in their handling of marijuana, Denmark has doubled down on its regressive stance and dug in its heels.
What happened shortly-there-after was a large influx of money and an initiative that would have allowed Christiania to buy itself from the Danish Government. This would have solved the Government’s issues with hypocritically allowing the sale of soft drugs, as well as some of the other issues tied to taxation, education, and health. Ultimately, I’m not sure what the poison pill was, but now several years later most of that talk seems to have died down.
What did happen was a huge investment in “improving” Christiania. The streets and squares were paved with cobblestones, Nemoland was given a massive overhaul, new bathrooms were added and what had been a charming creative swapmeet was essentially turned into a mini-mall overnight. They even installed large signs declaring Pusher’s Street the Green Light District. It’s also the point where a lot of the freetown’s most exciting and charming attributes ended. Prices surged by at least a third over a period of months. The organic and naturalistic charm of Nemoland was replaced by a boring and gutted version of itself. To this day, as you walk through Christiania, a majority of the graffiti and artwork that lines the path pre-dates this period. It’s as if that’s the point where Christiania’s soul died.
It’s also when the clashes with police further escalated. While the tensions began as early as 2004, it was around this period that the police began to raid Christiania more regularly. In theory their goal was to sweep up any elements of organized crime and to discourage the blatant sale of soft drugs (hard drugs were outlawed by the community a decade before). Predictably, all they managed to do was criminalize Christiania. Where previously you had most of the city’s weed and hash sales concentrated and controlled in Christiania, these raids pushed some of the vendors out into the neighborhoods. Just like stomping on an anthill, all they managed to do was send the ants scurrying. Unfortunately, these ants were nowhere near as friendly, respectable, or relaxed once they got into neighborhoods.
Which isn’t to say the raids didn’t have an effect. They definitely did. Within Christiania, where you had historically had locals and some organized vendors selling their product along Pusher’s Street in an open and friendly fashion, things gradually changed. Camouflage nets went up, masks came out, the vendors themselves became more hardened criminals and thuggish. In effect, what the police managed to do was ghettoize Pusher’s Street and drive it into the very hands they were supposedly discouraging.
The Christiania of today isn’t a nice place. The vendors along Pusher’s Street have built small fortresses. Dressed in military khakis with quasi-military cuts, the vendors hide behind slits in the hanging camouflage while wearing ski-masks, glasses, and skull-decorated t-shirts wrapped around their heads. The true locals would no longer dream of selling their home-grown product because…with risks like that, why should they? The modern vendors walk with the brutish strut of people looking for a fight and have the visage and mindset of gang members.
While you’ll still see some children or business people dressed in their suits relaxing in Christiania, most now only visit it briefly before leaving and returning to their business. It is a place that no longer feels as welcoming, as friendly, or as inclusive. It is a place that oozes a feel of decay – not unlike a tenement building being milked by a slumlord.
The Christiania Still Worth Seeing
Despite the deterioration of Pusher’s Street and Nemoland, there is still a side of Christiania which is well worth seeing. It is the side I share with friends and tourists when they visit, though I have to admit, that the times when I’m playing tour guide are the only ones where I make the trip to Copenhagen’s once-fascinating freetown.
A visit to Christiaania these days means a brief walk through Pusher’s Street, a glance at Nemoland, and then walking up the worn wooden stairs onto the old earthen battlements. From there we walk the overgrown path along the canal, wind our way to the bridge, and then perhaps walk through some of Christiana’s authentic residential areas. These areas still have the depth of color, creative flair, and haphazard architectural constructs that make Christiania charming. They’re also the area where you’ll get a sense of the old Christiania and spot things like potted marijuana starters left in a crate in font of a house with a “take one, be happy, they’re free” sign.
It’s the area that has floating model sailing ships moored in the midst of the canal, a stable, gorgeous gardens, and locals out and about relaxing and enjoying themselves. It is also when you feel the natural spirit and soul of Christiania…a quiet, rich, green space with bird song, water, and nature situated in the very heart of Denmark’s capital city. It is a spectacular contrast and one that is very unique. There are also periodic events which are well worth a visit. Chief among these is Science and Cocktails where some of the world’s leading minds give an hour long TED-like talk from a cozy stage in an old speak-easy theater with sand floors and barmen dressed in lab coats mixing up old-timey cocktails with dry ice and beakers in the back.
So, if you do find your way to Copenhagen and to Christiania, don’t stop at Pusher’s Street. Delve deeper and explore the true heart of Christiania. And as far as Pusher’s Street and the Green Light District? Will it ever re-discover its soul? It’s hard to know or say. I suppose a lot depends on the community, and on the Danish police. Either way, it’s sad to see such a cool experiment degenerate so quickly.