With its eclectic mix of colourful shacks and eco-design houses, Christiania in Copenhagen is one of the world’s most famous communes. However, since its founding by a group of hippies in 1971, its status as an alternative society has become somewhat overshadowed by its reputation as a haven for masked dealers selling cannabis from behind booths. A source of contention not only among those living there but also with the police, who frequently searched the area, residents finally closed down the market in September after police officers and a civilian were shot following a drugs raid. Today, the stalls are no longer there, although people are still visiting Pusher Street in the hope of buying hash. “Although the closing down of Pusher Street happened for an incredibly sad reason, the street had become unpleasant to be in and I'm glad things have now changed there,” says Debbie Posthus, 35, who lives in Christiania with her husband and son. “I, for one, love seeing that street filled with playing, happy kids these days.” With the cannabis booths demolished, perhaps Christiania will rise again to become recognised for being a safe, democratic neighbourhood rather than for the hash cartel that was Pusher Street. The 84-acre enclave, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in September, is home to a proud community of around 1,000 residents, many of whom fly the town’s flag (a red rectangle featuring three yellow dots) outside their homes, and is rich with art galleries, music venues, vegetarian restaurants and cafés. The people here are close-knit, and in a world where many of us wouldn’t recognise our own neighbours, it is easy to feel envious of those who belong to the self-governed town. “I like being part of a community where we have to agree about things,” says Lotte Smed, 56, who has lived in Christiania for 30 years. “I have the opportunity to decide whether we are going to have a kindergarten or not; I can be part of that if I want to. I think that’s fantastic.”
It’s this ethos that attracted German-born Posthus to Christiania. “I like the community here. When I was in hospital after our son was born prematurely, one of our neighbours came in every day to light a fire so we didn’t have to come home to a frozen house. Others would bring food. I don’t think you’d get that anywhere else.” Smed, who teaches engineering students at Aalborg University, took up residence in Christiania after working in the free town as a blacksmith for five years, applying to move into a simple trailer wagon when it became available. She now lives in a charming 60-square-metre house. “I built this,” she says proudly, showing me around her two-bedroom home, which at one point housed Smed, her partner, her son and his partner. “It was a building site when I took over the plot. The walls were here and the roof but I put everything in, from the insulation to the panels, and built the kitchen and bathroom.” Despite the sheer investment and elbow grease Smed has expended on the house she’s lived in for much of her life, it doesn’t belong to her – all of the property here belongs to Christiania. Rather than home ownership, residents effectively rent the properties, paying the community 27 Danish krone (DKK) per square metre per month, and an additional 1,200 DKK each month for every person aged 18 and over, she says. “You don’t own anything here,” says Smed. “When I move out, I won’t get any money for my house, and I can’t decide who is having it after me.” Smed explains that the 40 million DKK collected in rent every year is pumped back into the community, with outgoings including electricity, water, taxes and renovation. In Christiania, a busy calendar of meetings to discuss everything from the upkeep of community buildings to the local economy keeps the neighbourhood ticking. “I had a strong sense of duty when I first moved here,” says Posthus, who came to the town four years ago after working in the local post office for eight years. “I probably attended too many meetings. It’s a consensus democracy but it somehow works. Everyone has an input here. Anyone can call a meeting.” But, of course, constant interaction and the need to reach an agreement can be difficult. “When you’ve been living anywhere where you have neighbours, you have to do things together,” says Smed. “It’s tough, hard and horrible and you make enemies because you’re so close to each other.” And with around one million tourists visiting every year, many locals feel as if they’re living in a zoo.
“Sometimes when I come home from work and there’s heaps of them, I just think fuck off,” says Smed. “I just want to get home. But it’s not just the tourists, it’s become really crowded around the areas, with flats being built nearby and all these joggers running around. But that’s just the way it is.” A couple of years ago, the residents experimented with putting up walls around Christiania for a week. “A lot of us enjoyed that in a way, but if we wanted it that way then we should have moved to the countryside. I like being part of the city.” Posthus also finds other people’s fascination with her neighbourhood strange. “In one way it’s nice that people want to view it and they should because it’s beautiful and interesting.” But sometimes it can be overbearing, she says. “Once there was a tourist group who climbed over our flowers outside the house to have a good look in. My husband was sat at the computer in his boxing shorts. We needed to put curtains up after that.” When asked whether she’ll live in Christiania for the foreseeable future, Smed replies: “I often think, should I be old here or move now? But I think I’ll end up here.” As for Posthus, there’s no plan to leave the community-driven utopia. “I like bringing my son up here. It’s a safe place for kids to grow up as there’s no cars allowed and they can just run around. People are used to it being strange here. But different is normal for us.”