Why you should care
Even socialist anarchies grow old and fragile.
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Rasmus Balstrøm first tripped to the hippie land of Christiania 14 years ago as a nervous teenager hoping to score some pot. The area’s open hash market was lit with fairy lights, filled with music and thronged with happy crowds, says the 28-year-old graffiti artist. Now, though, gangs and hipsters have rendered it almost unrecognizable, he says. Outside his apartment window, a young tourist couple sporting distressed jeans and hoodies snap a photo with a selfie stick.
Since 1971, this Copenhagen neighborhood has been a magnet for dreamers and druggies who’ve come to find themselves, their muse or just some righteous weed. It’s an 84-acre bastion of alternativeness, founded on an abandoned military base, that has weathered numerous attempts to clean it up or shut it down. Supported by the cash dropped by tourists and cannabis customers, the squatter commune of roughly 900 people has governed itself for decades.
But Christiania’s long-running “social experiment” is starting to turn on its creators. European biker gangs have muscled in on the marijuana trade, harshening the collective mellow with beatings and worse violence. Police, in turn, recently conducted the largest drug raid in Danish history, landing 83 people in prison. The biggest threat, though, may come from a new generation of hipsters, some raised in Christiania, who groove on the neighborhood so much, they’re starting to remake it in their image. The city government, meanwhile, is dusting off plans to cut Christiania in half with a commuter bike lane that would connect it to an upscale neighboring district. “Christiania is a unique and valuable part of Copenhagen,” says Lars Aslan Rasmussen, a member of Copenhagen’s city council, “but it is a part of Copenhagen much like any other urban area.”
Like Europe’s other once infamous sin cities, Christiania shows anarchy’s limits when faced with modern capitalism and local governments eager to spiff up their images. These days, Amsterdam’s red-light district features fewer prostitute windows and more trendy cafes thanks to a city program designed to improve the working lives of working girls; extensive police surveillance has changed Barcelona’s El Raval from a den of drugs and crime to an artistic hot spot. Similar efforts are under way from South Philadelphia’s Point Breeze to Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap, once dodgy areas that are now turning into middle-class destinations.
Christiania has already beaten the odds just by lasting this long, its supporters argue. “If we’ve made it so far, we can survive anything,” says Kerstin Larsonm, the community’s spokeswoman.
Neither tourism nor drugs is new to Christiania. Weed has been here from the beginning, and tourists started flocking soon after. But unforeseen consequences are mounting now that the area attracts roughly 2 million visitors a year — almost 3,000 per resident (in 2013, 8.6 million tourists visited Denmark as a whole). The sounds of Janis Joplin have long since given way to hip-hop. Bachelorette parties, schoolchildren and Japanese tourists in safari gear roam among self-built houses with moss-covered roofs, walls made entirely out of windows and facades that resemble the prow of a ship (flag included).
Gentrification is starting to show — not just in overpriced cappuccinos and $90 designer T-shirts but at stores like Delux Chp, a hip urban fashion shop run by Thomas Forchammers, a second-generation Christianian. Gangsta rap blasts from the shop as the store’s young staff party with a street barbecue. The area’s trendiness is good news, Forchammers says: “It’s only the old hippies who don’t want it to change.”
Amaia, a 60-something woman who carts art supplies through town on her bike, concurs. “I’m all for businesses opening, but they should make the things with their own hands — that’s the spirit of Christiania,” she declares.
“Christiania still symbolizes the possibility to do the unforeseen,” says Cathrin Wasshede, a professor of sociology at the University of Gothenburg who has long studied the area. But Christiania also mirrors broader changes in Scandinavian social democracy. Long mainstays of egalitarianism and strong social safety nets, Nordic countries have grown more accepting of inequality and deregulated capitalism — even when it backfires, as when unfettered banks almost bankrupted Iceland in the financial crisis. Idealists in those countries haven’t had much luck rolling back free-market changes, and Christiania’s true believers may have similar trouble bucking the tide.
The downside is clear on Pusher Street, home to the neighborhood’s hash and weed market. The area’s dealers, who once conducted their business in the open, now hawk their wares behind camouflage netting while masked enforcers stand guard. The fairy lights that illuminated handwritten lists of varieties and prices are long gone, replaced by large, ominous signs reading: “No Photos.”
“The whole business is run by gangs now, and they are dangerous,” says one resident, who asked not to be identified. The recent police sweep detained members of Hell’s Angels and other gangs with little interest in Christianian ideals of love and peace. Following the latest crackdowns, organized crime is spreading because amateurs can’t afford the risk of going to prison, says the wary resident. And the gangs don’t like newcomers. A couple of months ago, a 20-year-old was beaten to death for trying to sell on gang turf. Several tourists have been attacked for trying to take pictures.
Even some of Christiania’s young artists are starting to pull up stakes. Balstrøm, the graffiti artist, recently helped create a free space for art collectives in an abandoned candy factory farther north, and he says he’ll likely head out himself before long. “The revolution is happening in other places now,” he says wistfully.