I was strolling through the commotion of downtown Copenhagen, past chain restaurants dressed up to look old and under towering hotels that seem to be part of a different international chain each year. Then, as if from another age, a man pedaled his wife in a “Christiania Bike” — two wheels pushing a big, utilitarian rounded bucket. You’d call the couple “granola” in the USA. They look as out of place here in Copenhagen as an Amish couple in Manhattan.
Later I paused to watch a parade of ragtag soldiers-against-conformity dressed in black venture through the modern bustle of downtown Copenhagen. They walked sadly behind a WWII-vintage truck blasting Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall.” I never listened to the words until now. They’re fighting a rising tide of conformity. They want to raise their children to be not cogs but to be free spirits. On their banner — painted onto an old sheet — was a slogan you see in their squatter community: “Lev livet kunstnerisk! Kun dode fisk flyder med strommen.”(“Live life artistically! Only dead fish follow the current.”) They flew the Christiania flag — three yellow dots on an orange background. They say the dots are from the o’s in “Love Love Love.”
In 1971, 700 hippies took over an abandoned naval camp in Copenhagen and turned it into a free city. It’s been run as a commune ever since — with routine run-ins with the city. But it has survived. Those original hippies are pushing 60, and their community has become the second- or third-biggest tourist attraction in town — famous for geodesic domes on its back streets, swap shops, vegetarian cafés, and shacks selling pot on its main street (nicknamed “Pusher Street”).
Biking through the community myself later that day, it occurred to me that, except for the bottled beer being sold, there was not a hint of any corporate entity in the entire free city. Everything was handmade. Nothing was packaged. And, of course, that will not stand.
The current conservative government is feeling the pressure from developers to “normalize” Christiania. There is a “take it or leave it” “final solution” on the table for leaders of the commune to deal with. The verdict is that the land (which no one wanted 35 years ago) needs more density. Much of it will be opened to market forces, and 1,600 people who aren’t in the community will be allowed to move in. Injecting outsiders and market forces into the last attempt at a socialist utopia surviving in Europe from its flower-power days will bring great change.
Marijuana has been the national plant of the free city. (Hard drugs have always been strictly forbidden.) The police have really cracked down. Pot is no longer sold from little kiosks on Pusher Street. The police drop in 10 times a day. Cafés now post signs warning no pot smoking.
It’s a classic case study in the regrettable consequences of a war on pot. For the first time in years, the Copenhagen street price is up, gangs are moving into the marijuana business, and crime is associated with pot. There was actually a murder recently, as pushers fought to establish their turf — unthinkable in Copenhagen in previous years.
I recently got an email from some traveling readers. They said, “We’re not prudes, but Christiania was creepy. Don’t take kids here or go after dark.”
A free city is not pretty, I agree. But “Pusher Street” and pot is not what the free city is about. Watching parents raise their children with Christiania values as I biked the free city’s back streets, I came to believe more strongly than ever that allowing this social experiment and giving alternative-type people a place to be alternative is a kind of alternative beauty that deserves a place.