The Summer of Love has found its forever-home, and it’s called Freetown Christiania

The Summer of Love has found its forever-home, and it’s called Freetown Christiania

Rad Copenhagen: Insider's Guide Part IV — In 2013, we headed out to Copenhagen's CPH Pro to put together this alternative city guide on the city's thriving creative community. In the final instalment, Huck meets the lurkers, lifers and outsiders carving an alternative Copenhagen, free from restraint in Freetown Christiania.

Over the Christians Brygge, just off Torvegade and past the Vor Frelsers Kirke tower, lies a place called Freetown Christiania; an autonomous community stretching eight-four acres, that mysteriously ghosts itself into the rest of Copenhagen. Tourists mill around curiously on dusty paths as bikes whizz past. Locals drink beer, play music and smoke joints on a weathered wooden beam next to a children’s playground. Along a dusty path, a bunch of kid-sized Wellington boots are filled with various flowers. Opera music fills the air. Up ahead, a placid lake reflects a hodge-podge silhouette of houses, hand-crafted into the oddest shapes. Some look like greenhouses. Some look like UFOs. One is a hollow meditation temple full of wooden beams and skylights. The whole place lives and breathes counterculture. Expect the unexpected, feels like an appropriate mantra.

Rewind to 26 September, 1971 and the abandoned Bådsmandsstræde military barracks in the Christianshavn borough of Copenhagen. Journalist Jacob Ludvigsen and his disenfranchised band of followers took it upon themselves to reclaim and enter what he coined ‘The Forbidden City of the Military’. The site was seen as a prime opportunity to plant the seeds of a new society and let it grow into an autonomous paradise, unpolluted by mainstream rules and regulations. They envisioned a playground for those seeking the bliss of peace and meditation, a safe house for stoners too far gone to participate in the outside world. The Fristaden Christiania (Freetown Christiania) mission statement was formed calling for a ‘self-governing’ and ‘economically self-sustaining’ society, whereby individuals could be free yet remain protective of the community.

Now nearing its forty-second year as a self-governed neighbourhood, it’s been a long and occasionally bumpy ride for young Christiania. Behind the hazy mystique lies struggle, change and defiance; even paradise has its problems. The social history of Christiania has been plagued with bad relations with police, hard drugs, violent biker gangs (Bullshit biker gang versus Hells Angels), but the community overrules any real BS. In 1979, after a group of local informants were ‘outed’ by police for dobbing in heavy-drug users, residents refused to further co-operate and instead set up their own ‘Junk Blockade’, patrolling the streets and offering heavy users an ultimatum: ‘Fix up, or get out.’

The government has also had a hand in history, often hanging over the area precariously like a bad smell. “Christiania is a dwelling for people who wish to live in a different manner,” said Danish Conservative party member Christian Wedell-Neergaard, who went on to explain his desire to pump the area with various ownership models – the exact opposite of why Christiania exists in the first place. In 2011, tension came to a head when residents barricaded the city in response to pressures that they “normalise” and sell up.

The notorious Pusher Street – a kind of marketplace for drugs – also keeps the area in a weird limbo. Dogs run amok, tails wagging under the ‘NO PHOTOGRAPH’ signs as ‘tradesmen’ lay out single joints, bumper bags of weed and blocks of hash on stalls. As the sun peaks on a Saturday afternoon, the queues grow. It’s because of the ‘Green Light District’ that Christiania is Copenhagen’s second-biggest tourist trap, skimming on the edge of reality like a dreamlike adult playground. It’s hard to decipher how this street even exists; the drug trade is no more legal here than anywhere else in Copenhagen, but the law is not enforced. It’s fair to say that the little industry booming here on Pusher Street has been both the making of Christiania and the root of its problems.

Even with all the controversy, and the government threatening to show up to the party uninvited and carve up Christiania like a cold Christmas dinner, peace is still a priority for residents. There might be the odd scuffle after somebody downs a few too many beers, but the general consensus from locals is that Christiania is a laidback, safe place. They see it as a hub of self-expression, bound only by the ‘feel good’ Christiania Law that, among other things, prohibits the use of hard drugs whilst encouraging kissing and baby making. If Christiania were a person, it’d be sipping mojitos on a sun lounger while reading a book about the good life that we could all do well to learn from.

With that in mind, HUCK went for a wander around the Freetown and met some of Christiania’s workers, lurkers, lifers and outsiders to find out why its spirit can’t be bottled and sold on.

The Artist


Don Mario, 51 – Painter & owner of South Pacific, Christiania

Beyond the tourist trap and sneaky side-eye glances of Pusher Street lies a more authentic Christiania. On this strip sits the grocery store, a vegetarian restaurant, children’s playground and Don Mario’s brightly painted studio space, South Pacific. Just one step from the path and you’ll find a mystical mountain of Indo-inspired stone statues, hanging baskets, tile mosaics, children’s welly boots sprouting plants and an air-conditioning unit choked by creeping green vines. Here, Don Mario lives, sleeps, hustles and paints. Friendliness never fails to fall by the wayside as he introduces himself and offers us a coffee over the loud opera music playing on his ghetto blaster. “Well I used to live in the land of the free, but that wasn’t really freedom,” he recalls. Hailing from Boston, he was frequently told about Christiania by his Danish mother. Curiosity got the better of him and in 1981, aged nineteen, he bid a fond farewell to the American Dream and made tracks to Christiania. “When I came here it was just amazing,” he recalls. “It was sort of like The Summer of Love, only many years later. It was very peaceful.” Don Mario has now spent more years in Freetown than you can count on all fingers and toes: thirty-two, to be precise. So, what’s he done in that time? Well, everything. He used to make music. “Hip-hop, all kinds of stuff,” he says as he introduces us to a friend from Boston who used to rap over his material. His studio-slash-store-slash-abode South Pacific has been open for the past two years, where he now channels all his efforts to focus on painting. Just from browsing the veranda you can tell that art, and the Christiania commitment to self-expression, are firm tenets of Don Mario’s life. “Yeah, I live in the back of the shop, but paintings have overtaken my home like creatures!” he laughs.


The Outsider


Kip, 24 – No fixed abode

Sitting on the top edge of Christiania, awkwardly plonked across the water from a conflicting plot of bougie city homes, is a skeleton of Christiania’s military barrack past. Wandering around this crumbling concrete playground of DIY ramps and empty spray-paint cans is Kip. A self-proclaimed ‘squatter’, he could have 500 Danish Krone in his wallet or just some fluff in his back pocket, but it wouldn’t matter. Status symbols don’t hold much sway here. Along with a colony of ‘outsiders’ camped on the edge of Christiania, Kip is a free spirit with no fixed abode, job or cash worries. He grew up in the semi-sleepy outskirts of Amager, but now moves frequently between cities, camps and unoccupied buildings. This old military hangar is “full of poison” he tells us – crumbling walls tightly packed with harmful asbestos dust. But he laid his head here for a while nonetheless. It’s a lifestyle he has adopted for a few years and particularly enjoys in Christiania. “I like that it’s chilled in some way, you meet a lot of different people,” says Kip, as we gather around his campsite. “We have tourists, we have hippies who have moved out into the forest to escape civilisation, and alcoholics and addicts. It’s really difficult to get a place inside Christiania if you don’t know somebody who has worked for a long time there.” He says this all with little frustration, because even without domestic luxuries or the security of a fixed home, Kip and his crew of roaming merry men have found the alternative lifestyle that they crave.


The Worker


Nanna, 24 – Shop Assistant at Indkøbscentralen grocery store, Christiania

Nanna steps out of the shop and is instantly stopped by a Christiania busker, who tells her she looks like a ‘goddess’. Eating yoghurt and humbly giving thanks, she comically shrugs off the comment as a fixture of daily life. “It’s so free,” she says. “Everything is okay and everybody knows each other.” A far cry from the uniformed 7Eleven staff across the road, Nanna’s casual work in the only bricks-and-mortar grocery store, Indkøbscentrale, cements her as a local even though she isn’t a Christiania resident. Growing up for the first few years of her life in the Freetown, her parents decided to move out into the ‘real world’ to raise Nanna. But looking around, it’s hard to think why. “They just thought it was better to come out here at the weekends, otherwise we would live here and go to kindergarten here and do everything here,” she says. “I think it is important to go out in the real world sometimes otherwise it would end up being a fantasy. The way people are living and acting out here – even their houses are so imaginary, so fantasy.” Nanna loves the friendliness of Christiania. In the area surrounding the grocery store, a crowd of locals gathers to hang out and you can tell that it’s a regular occurrence. Weathered elders sit next to the playground drinking beer and smoking in the sunshine, occasionally yelling at each other in that warm ‘I’ve known you for years so shut up’ kind of way. Nanna gets to people-watch for hours most days, so she’s in a unique position to comment on the question on every visitor’s lips: is there stuff going on inside Christiania that wouldn’t happen in the ‘real world’? Everyday, says Nanna. “Yesterday when I was at work there was like this crazy drunk lady laying on the ground, half naked, screaming and singing along with the buskers while these two guys looking like leprechauns were dancing around her,” she laughs. “You don’t see that in other places.”


The Lifers


Julie and her folks – Family living in Christiania

Julie and her family are Christiania lifers, pure and simple. As we sit on their porch sipping homemade elderflower, ginger and strawberry pressé, everybody laughs between themselves about the party in the yurt that went on across the lake until 9am this morning. “I woke up at 5:30am and they were playing Goa trance,” says Julie’s mum, Brigitte. It’s not the usual Tuesday morning, but then again, Christiania isn’t exactly your usual town. Once a single room ammunition store, this house has been the family’s home for twenty-four years and counting. The building has evolved over the years and now features two floors with a kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms. It may have started out as a Hobbit home in size, but surrounded by open space, unlimited greenery and postcard views of the lake, the family soon fostered their own kind of freedom. “We used to live all four of us here, so it was quite crowded at sixty-five square metres,” says Julie. “But when you look outside the window you have the lake there, the open space – that helps you to not go crazy.” The family have always hit a great Christiania-meets-real-world equilibrium, taking what they needed from both sides to sculpt the perfect lifestyle. Julie attended an ‘outside’ school in Østerbro, dad Hans-Jørgen ventured as far afield as the Gherkin in London for work, and Brigitte moved around various advertising agencies in Copenhagen before going freelance. It helped them keep a steady head and appreciate the unique life they had at home. “When I crossed the [Christiania] bridge on my bike and heard the sound [of wheels on wood going] ‘durrdurr’, it was like I left all the shit behind me,” says Brigitte.


The Father of Skate


Albert Hatchwell – Founder of Wonderland skatepark, Christiania

“Aloha,” says Albert as he stands outside his Christiania kingdom, Wonderland – an internationally renowned Copenhagen skate park that looks like a stilt-legged chalet covered in graffiti. An elusive figure, Albert is one half of Copenhagen skate super-brand ALIS, alongside business partner Isabelle Hammerich (ALIS being an amalgam of their names). “It was just coincidences, you know, a summer like this and some good red wine.” The result was an early version of Wonderland; a mini ramp standing on the opposite edge of Christiania, next to the Woodstock Bar. After the ramp got seriously sessioned, one of the neighbours started complaining about the noise. So, Albert took extreme action. “[I was] tired of listening to him, so another friend came by with a crane and ‘vroooom’ we ran right through it. ‘You happy now man?! I’m gonna move that shit!’ So we moved it here,” laughs Albert. Without any plans, they purchased a bunch of recycled wood and got to work. Inspiration was drawn from what Albert refers to as “an epic place called Happyland in San Diego,” which they tried to reconstruct with a Copenhagen ethos. Today, Wonderland is a 24/7 skate Mecca. Roll up at 2pm: people shredding. Roll up at 2am: people shredding. Christiania has played a big part in Albert’s life. He came here at the age of nineteen, stayed for twenty years, then moved into the city with his family. With his livelihood still firmly rooted in the Freetown, he enjoys what the area has to offer, but is unsure whether he will return to settle. “There is such rhythm here. I love this place and it’s a big part of me,” he says. “People have offered me [a house back in Christiania], but I can live just as well outside. I can take the best from both worlds. It drains you when you live here. You tend not to get out because you have everything. You don’t have to live here, you can be a Christianian by heart.”


This article originally appeared in Huck 40 as part of Levi’s Presents: Rad Copenhagen! An Alternative City Guide. Subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss another issue.