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After 50 Years, a Danish Commune Is Shaken From Its Utopian Dream

On an unseasonably sunny Saturday this fall, Freetown Christiania, a semiautonomous commune spread across 74 acres in the center of Copenhagen, Denmark, crackled with life. A person wove through the crowds on his bicycle, selling freshly made sushi rolls; street-market stalls were bursting with colourful clothing, tapestries and glass bongs; and at the middle of all of it, men illegally hawked cannabis from picket stalls lining an area generally known as Pusher Street.

“This is paradise,” a tourist told her friend as they surveyed the scene.

But tensions lurked beneath the joyous surface.

Founded in 1971 by squatters on an abandoned military base, Christiania was devised as a post-’60s anarchistic utopia, where people could live outside of Denmark’s market economy, free to construct their houses where and the way they wanted, to sell marijuana for a living, and to live as they pleased so long as they didn’t harm their neighbors. Denmark’s government oscillated between attempting, without much success, to bring the community to heel or turning a blind eye as Christianites flouted property laws and drug laws. But now, after 50 years, with worsening gang violence and fresh attempts by the federal government to normalize the commune, some residents see their dream of another society fading.

The infamous Pusher Street, once operated mostly by residents but now overrun by gangs, could be the first domino to fall. And over the following decade, Christiania’s roughly 900 residents can have to accommodate 15,000 square meters of recent public housing and tons of of recent neighbors, in keeping with a tentative agreement with the state that may afford the community the possibility to purchase the complete 74-acre site from the Danish government.

Some residents fear that the brand new housing will signal the tip of Christiania’s self-governance, and possibly its communal spirit. The only solution to the escalating gang violence, they are saying, is for the federal government to legalize marijuana (though harder drugs may also be procured on Pusher Street). Others, who consider Pusher Street a blight, consider the community should embrace the public-housing plan and permit the federal government to shut down Pusher Street once and for all — something the police have did not do despite quite a few attempts through the years, partially because until this 12 months, Christianites refused to cooperate with them.

“This place was really anarchistic,” said Ole Lykke, 77, who has lived in Christiania since 1980 and runs the commune’s archive. “You could do whatever you wanted so long as you didn’t disturb others, and there was a sense of community.”

Now Mr. Lykke sees an end to the experiment looming on the horizon: “I feel in five, seven or eight years, Christiania is not going to be Christiania anymore.”

Sitting outside the local brewery that he co-owns, Carl Oskar Strange eyed the drug dealers on Pusher Street from beneath his cap. “They’re a cancer for Christiania,” he said. Two weeks earlier, a shooting on the road had left 4 people injured and one man dead.

Mr. Strange, 34, has lived on this semiautonomous zone, which occupies a curving strip of land on the Copenhagen island of Amager, his entire life. “Growing up in Christiania was the most effective childhood ever,” Mr. Strange said. “We had freedom. Pusher Street was very nice back then.”

But the dealers have modified, he said. As he spoke, a tourist approached and offered Mr. Strange a half-smoked joint. He took it and sucked down a protracted drag before he continued speaking. “Five to seven years ago they got much tougher,” he said. “Now they only want profit. They don’t bring good vibes.”

Christiania has long embraced cannabis while shunning more dangerous substances. But as gangs overtook the drug trade, harder drugs made their way in, together with a number of the violence that underpins organized crime. After the recent shooting, Christiania’s residents, who operate a consensus democracy where decisions are made by unanimous assent in town-hall-style meetings, settled on two conclusions: that Pusher Street ought to be shuttered permanently, and that the state should intervene — a rare step for the anti-establishment community.

“This has never happened,” said Mette Prag, 59, an architect and spokeswoman for Christiania, and a resident since 1987. Ms. Prag was seated on her porch, an enthralling grassy knoll behind her. Though her home is a couple of five-minute walk from Pusher Street, it feels a world away, quiet and pastoral.

“The decision showed how fed up a whole lot of us are,” she said, pouring a glass of rhubarb juice. “It showed that you’ve got to decide on: Are you in or out? Also, a whole lot of people saw the shooting. The street was full, they usually were shooting into the gang.”

The incident followed a stabbing and an assault this spring, fatal shootings in 2021 and 2022, and one in 2016, when two law enforcement officials and a bystander were hit. Police crackdowns began in 2004 and have escalated in recent times. Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, the mayor of Copenhagen, said the police attempted to shut down Pusher Street greater than 100 times in 2022. “But once they leave, it comes right back,” she said.

“When the police began to intervene more recurrently and more often, a whole lot of individuals who were bridging the market into Christiania were imprisoned,” Ms. Hæstorp Andersen said. “This left a spot where a number of the gangs could get into the scene.” Some of the gangs are suspected to be coming from Sweden, where organized crime has risen significantly.

This summer, the mayor said, she received signals from the Christianites that, after half a century, they finally wanted outside help. In early August, in the midst of the night, several dozen residents descended on Pusher Street to raze the drug stalls and block entrances with large containers. The stalls were back up and running hours later.

In a statement on Facebook, residents wrote that they felt powerless against the might of gangs. “We are extraordinary individuals who should go to work and pack lunchboxes for our youngsters,” the statement said. “The gangs are able to use violence and kill people with a purpose to protect their income and territories.”

Mr. Lykke, the archivist, spends his days in several brightly coloured rooms full of rows of files, books, newspaper clippings and posters that document Christiania’s history. He smoked a cigarette with one hand as he leafed through the yellowed pages of the newspaper article from 1971 that inspired the formation of Christiania. “The mafia doesn’t hearken to anybody,” he said. “The idea behind Christiania is openness and honesty. Mafia is the alternative.”

Andreas Bennetzen, 48, a musician who has lived here for 14 years, used to come back to the world with friends for concert events when he was an adolescent. “I remember walking into the place and feeling a way of freedom, like all the pieces is feasible,” he said. But now the escalating violence on Pusher Street has created “a continuing crisis situation that we have now to cope with.”

Mr. Bennetzen has been involved in several of the attempts to shut down Pusher Street, but he sees these as mostly symbolic. “We can close it down as much as we would like, however the only solution is legalization,” he said, referring to marijuana.

Ms. Hæstorp Andersen, the mayor, said she is in favor of legalizing cannabis, but that her position runs counter to her party’s official stance in Parliament. In September, Denmark’s Justice Ministry announced a plan to create a penalty zone in Christiania where people caught with cannabis can be fined on a scale.

“People in Christiania are all individuals who didn’t fit into society one way or the other,” said Marios Orozco, 61, who has lived in here since 1981 and was once a dealer on Pusher Street. “What they’ve in common is that they don’t care what people consider them.”

Residents can have little interest in hierarchies or societal norms, but they live with loads of rules and organizational structures. Hard drugs and violence are banned. Rent and mortgage payments — whether someone lives in a converted barracks, a constructing shaped like a small spaceship or a ramshackle house with dandelions painted on it — are calculated partially in keeping with the dimensions of their dwelling, at 32 Danish kroner, or about $4.67, per square meter per thirty days. The community also charges what amounts to a monthly membership fee of 1,350 Danish kroner, or $196, for running Christiania, which helps pay the salaries of electricians, gardeners and garbage collectors, amongst others.

In the early years, Mr. Orozco said, “you would possibly discover a house that was really run down, you’ll move in and fix it up, and you then’re there, and nobody could do anything about it. Or you may take a trailer and roll into Christiania at the hours of darkness.”

Now, permits have to be secured for construction, and structures have to be built to last a long time. (In the past, said Ms. Prag, the community spokeswoman, she built additions to her house with the expectation that Christiania may very well be gone in a couple of years.) Applicants for available homes locally undergo interviews with their potential neighbors.

In 2011, on the heels of a supreme court decision confirming that the state had control over Christiania, the Danish government and Christianites reached the agreement by which the residents formed a foundation that purchased one-fourth of Christiania’s land, and started paying a hard and fast rent on the remainder.

Now the residents wish to buy the rest for 67 million Danish kroner, or about $9.5 million, but they’ll’t without submitting to a critical element of the agreement — the development of 15,000 square meters of public housing over the following decade for a city that desperately needs it. In recent years, Copenhagen’s housing supply has lagged behind its growing population, in keeping with a report from Copenhagen Economics, a consulting firm. The report warns that rising rents and residential prices in urban areas could end in “low-income groups being squeezed out.”

Mette Kierkgaard, a member of the Danish parliament and the Minister for Senior Citizens, under whose purview the agreement with Christiania falls, said via email that “the overarching goal of the agreement is to foster positive development within the Christiania area and supply cheaper housing. I find the agreement promising, and I eagerly anticipate monitoring progress in Christiania.”

But some residents worry that they lack the space for the housing. (About 75 percent of the land in Christiania is protected and can’t be developed, in keeping with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Senior Citizens.)

“Nobody knows where all these houses may be built,” Mr. Lykke said. “We’re talking about an area the dimensions of 1,000 normal-sized shipping containers. In my nightmares, I see 1,000 containers falling down from the sky, landing in Christiania.”

Residents also would lose the authority to make your mind up who moves in. And questions abound. For example: Will the newcomers embrace the time-consuming points of consensus democracy? “It’s hard to sit down in these consensus meetings for 4 or five hours without getting restless,” Mr. Strange said.

Others think the brand new housing may very well be a possibility to reimagine the community’s future.

“This may very well be Christiania’s likelihood to redefine themselves after 50 years,” said Alex Hummel Lee, 45, an assistant professor at The Royal Danish Academy, Institute of Architecture, Urbanism and Landscape in Copenhagen. This 12 months he had his students create proposals for the general public housing that may integrate Christiania’s needs and values.

“It really is an insular place,” Mr. Hummel Lee said. “A variety of social dynamics change into difficult.”

Mr. Strange, for one, believes the brand new housing will bring more opportunities and fresh energy to the commune because it embarks on a latest era. “The brewery can have more customers, the newcomers will bring families and youngsters. We could start a youth team for the football club,” he said. “We’ll find a way to grow.”

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