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Fairytale Squat Faces Political Squalor

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Issue: 33 Section: Accounts Geography: Europe Copenhagen, Denmark Topics: squats

February 16, 2006

Fairytale Squat Faces Political Squalor

Denmark's Christiania prepares to take on the state

by Shaughn McArthur

The remote areas of Christiania's 85 acres are still dotted with the alternative housing of innovative young families. photo: Shaughn McArthur
There is little heating in the sparsely furnished ex-barracks. The ashtrays need emptying, the tables need customers, and the walls are desperate for a fresh coat of paint, but 22-year-old, Montreal-born Nicco doesn't seem to mind.

It's the end of a day's work at the Infocafé. The Canadian-Dane-Christianite is pouring leftover coffee down the sink. He has spent most of his adult life living and working in the "Free State of Christiania."

Christiania was stablished in Copenhagen 35 years ago when a group of hippies breached fences around disused military barracks, and its land has since been collectively owned and administered. The community began in 1971 as a self–governing safe haven for artists and intellectuals who wanted to live simply, affordably, and by their own rules. Young families moved in, built homes, and declared cars, hard drugs and violence banned within Christiania's borders.

Today, much of the idealism that founded Denmark's famous fairytale squat has faded, and what remains is under threat.

Still a place to escape capitalism yet remain close to its best amenities, the "inner-city," or commercial area, of Christiania is now populated with drunkards, pushers, and outlaws. Gathered around trash-barrel fires and on the verandas of bars, drinking, smoking and dealing their wares, they make the unsuspecting visitor feel unwelcome, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Christiania retains a certain level of social cohesion. The community runs its own kindergartens, waste management program, successful businesses and a radio show, but citizens must turn to the city for benefits such as higher education and healthcare. When a vacancy arises in the community, the Citizens' Council decides by consensus on the next Christianite from the long waiting list.

photo: Shaughn McArthur

At least, they did.

On January 1, 2006, an amendment to the Christiania Act ended the 'collective right to use' agreement that had allowed the urban commune to exist on the fringes of the free market.

"It's all a dream in my eyes," says Nicco. The self-proclaimed cynic speaks grimly of the impending changes facing Denmark's social experiment.

"They want to make it into a rich people's paradise," he says.

Since the politically conservative Liberal Party--an accepted contradiction of terms in Danish politics -- formed a majority coalition in 2001 with the Conservative Party, Christianites have been fighting to preserve their alternative lifestyle.

"Christiania for them is a symbol of hippie socialism. They just don't like it," says Ole Lykke, 59, a Christianite for 26 years. The editor of Christiania's newspaper, he is part of the coalition negotiating with the state.

Beginning with the crackdown on its multi-million dollar open-air hash market in 2004, Christiania now faces real-estate development and urbanization of the state-owned land it occupies. 'Normalization' is the term the government uses.

"'Normalizing' means shutting us down," Nicco says.

Authorities insist that's not the case.

"We don't want to interfere in the life they want to live in Christiania. They just have to live by the same rules," says Peter Christensen, a Liberal Party spokesperson. "We have said to every man and woman there now that we guarantee them a place to live in Christiania"

Championing a unique consensus democracy, property has always been owned collectively in Christiania. Now, more than three decades later and with a housing crisis skyrocketing prices in the capital, that's all changing.

Last December, residents and business operators in Christiania were required to register the properties they occupy in order for it to be leased back to them individually by the state.

"Now, legally, there's no such thing as collective ownership," says Lykke.

This summer the Palace and Properties Agency will submit a plan to build private housing for up to 400 residents, restore and convert historical military buildings into state-owned social housing, and restore a sixteenth-century rampart along Christiania's waterfront.

On March 16, the Christiania advocacy group to which Lykke belongs will take the Agency to court. "I'm for compromise," says Lykke.

photo: Shaughn McArthur

One compromise both sides of this debate seem to accept is being developed in dialogue with the City of Copenhagen. It is a plan whereby individual residents and business operators in Christiania could maintain a sort of collective ownership by renting their properties from a fund. The fund then leases the land from the state on their behalf.

"Christiania should be a place where all Danes have access to live, without being exempt from the normal laws of the country," said Peter Fangel, team manager in the Planning and Architecture department of the City of Copenhagen.

"Things are going to change," he admits, but "it is important to preserve whatever is worth preserving out there."

Leaving Christiania, a sign over the gate reads like a prediction: "You are now entering the EU."

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