“People get filled with shit about us
Thousands are taught to hate our guts
Without knowing who we are”
—from Christiania’s “national anthem”
The Danes have a natural sense of industry about them, even the ones that are by disposition burnouts, squatters, or hippies. And so, from its first days as a commune on an abandoned Naval base in the heart of Copenhagen, Christiania was less an abstract idea than an ongoing construction project. For forty years now, scores of busy little Danes have been behind the walls of Christiania, hammering, tilling, leveling, toking, cultivating, fucking, graffiti-painting, cat-napping, woods-shitting, house-building. “Originally we were some people who grew tired of talking,” one of its many founders said in an early documentary about the place. “You know, people talked a lot in the late ‘60s. Instead of talking about how life could be, we said, let’s do it. Here were the possibilities. A big, beautiful area in the middle of town.”
It’s that size and the improbable longevity of what they’ve built that sets Christiania apart from any other squat or collective I’ve seen. And I’ve seen my share. In my 20’s, I used to slum around in Tacheles, the last of the artist-occupied East German apartment blocks on Berlin’s Oranienburger Street. Before that I spent a brief sojourn in a boarded-up squat in Brixton, London, eating at a nearby Anarchist cafeteria, where the ingredients were either shoplifted by the Black Bloc or liberated from trashcans. I spent years living in west coast college co-ops in the states, though I never quite committed, as some of my cohort did, to becoming “farmer freaks” who took their college degrees to rural communes to grow vegetables and dance naked on the solstice. The idea of squats, occupied lands and alternative communities, though, still appeals to me, as it should to anyone with a pulse. They are essentially treeforts for grownups, where you can duck out of society, write your own rules, bond them with blood oaths, smoke cigarettes, kiss the girls, whatever you want. That’s the promise: you make your own reality.
But all the other treeforts I’ve seen have been so small, so crowded out by the cities around them. In Brixton, there wasn’t enough room for the anarchists and punks to live together, so we fought. Or rather, the punks kicked our asses, and the anarchists had to retreat to even smaller spaces. Try sleeping in an empty clawfoot bathtub. The romance of the freedom wears thin quickly.
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What amazement, then, on my first day in Denmark, to set my bags down in a rented apartment on Bådsmandsstrædes, and walk through the Christiania gate to find almost a thousand men, women and children living on more than 80 acres, from the urban grit of Pusher Street to the shire charms of the hobbit-homes lining the lake. Yes, Pusher Street, the glowering heart of the commune, is as menacing as advertised: run by biker gangs, selling drugs to partiers, not idealists. It has long been the enemy within the walls. But what surprised me was everything else that Christiania has built: bars, grocery stores, cafés, a vegetarian restaurant, concert hall, art museum, an elementary school and day care center, even stables with a dressage ring. It is not a squat or a sit-in, but an entire occupied city.
My guide to this first day in Valhalla was Tanja Fox, 44, daughter of a Danish hippie and an American photographer who escaped the Vietnam draft. She was only four when her mother and sister were among the first settlers here. She raised her own children, now teenagers, here, and her life in a tucked-away Christiania enclave called Dandelion seems a model of utopian contentment. She drinks herbal tea, wears knit sweaters, grows fat-lipped Technicolor tulips in her garden, and takes her terrier named Yupi on 6am walks through Christiania every morning. She took me on the same walk that first day, up past the geometric Banana House, along the old rampart that was built centuries ago to keep the Swedes out, and down to the newly seeded lawn that slopes into the lake. More handmade Christiania homes were huddled cozily on the far shore as a breeze picked up the sails of a toy boat in the lake. “Look at this,” she said. “We are living in heaven.”
This heaven, though, has an expiration date: July 1, 2012. That’s the day when, after decades of pitched battle with Danish authorities, Christiania finally bows its head to accept the most basic, and hated, rule of outside society: land ownership. All 84 acres—minus some environmentally protected land—of previously occupied government land will transfer to a foundation run by Christiania for a price of 76 million kroner (nearly $13m USD). The process has been giving the bland bureaucratic name of normalisering (normalization), a word that seems market-tested to stick in the throats of the proudly abnormal Christianites. A team of four staffers at Denmark’s Palaces and Properties Agency, headed by Marija Theiden, will oversee the land purchase. Though Theiden wouldn’t comment on the political implications of normalization, she told me that “all parties voted for the agreement” and that the process of selling the land to its residents was “one of the most broad agreements in Danish politics.”
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