Zapatista mural in Christiania
Zapatista mural in Christiania
Kethevane Gorjestani
Luis Lema

COPENHAGEN - It's party time in Christiania, a neighborhood of the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Hundreds have gathered to listen to Sussie & Leo, a crazy duet that plays old rock and roll hits with a certain touch of self-mockery. "I'm an absolute fan," says Inge, a fifty-something-year-old woman with blue hair. "This group is part of our youth. And yes, they're playing for free, as friends. When I think that they signed a one-million-Danish-krone contract (130,000 euros) to sing for the bourgeois of Skagen, it makes me love them even more."

Despite Inge's sarcasm, Christiania has just become more like Skagen, an upscale seaside town 500km north of Copenhagen where the upper class gather. For the past several weeks, the world's most famous "free city" has been in turmoil. After 40 years of conflict and threats, resistance and talks, the Danish state has finally won the battle. Christianites were forced to pay up and buy most of the buildings that they had been occupying since the beginning of the "70s: a real revolution.

"No one will say it, but for us it is a huge defeat. Imagine: We've become owners overnight. We own houses!" says a young man who calls himself Asterix. He is actually wrong. Everyone in Christiania, at least those from 45 to 65-years-old, who are the majority, will actually admit to their failure. They might even use harsher words like "treason" or "capitulation."

Sixties ideals

Christiania was born in September 1971, on the beautiful grounds of an old military barracks, almost in the heart of Copenhagen. Hippies, the unemployed and squatters moved in pledging allegiance to a charter proclaiming the goal (at the time) of this "free" city: to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the well-being of the entire community.

For decades, Christianites stayed true to the ideals of the sixties. There are now almost a thousand people living here in self-sufficiency. Christiania has its own flag and money and even its own stamps. Residents pick up the trash (and they recycle, this is Scandinavia after all) with their own garbage trucks. They repair the city's sewage system and although there are no schools, they manage childcare centers. Cars aren't allowed except for emergencies, it's forbidden to run (a way to spot robbers) and the beer is brewed locally.

Ralf, a German man with long grey hair, was just passing through Copenhagen in the "70s. "I went to see this Christiania that everyone was raving about and I never left," he says. When he celebrated his 60th birthday a few days ago, everyone was talking about "it."

"The community turned to donations to pay the first million-euro slice to the state. But now we have to find a way to pay back the remaining millions that we owe to the bank."

The community makes decisions by consensus. It took three years of talks for the 17 neighborhoods of Christiania to take up Denmark's offer. But discussions continued: Will residents have to pay depending on the size of their home? Will they have to introduce the heretic idea of a monthly rent?

A younger, less idealistic generation

"Us oldies just gave in," says Ralf, sipping from his beer. The younger, less idealistic residents were convinced by the incredibly low prices offered compared to the housing market. They were the ones who tipped the balance. "We didn't really have a choice. Children and grand-children grow up, people divorce and live separately, we are facing a housing shortage." The deal with the Danish government allows Christiania residents to build new housing if they first pay for the renovation of the old military buildings, many of which are falling apart.

Pilot projects are in the works to try and deal with the commune's population. "One of the projects is to spread out older residents like me in buildings where younger neighbors can take care of us," says Ralf.

Christiania is one of Copenhagen's major tourist attractions and it's also very famous for its Pusher Street market, where residents openly sell marijuana. But behind this "tourist" attraction that largely "subsidizes" Christiania, there are 32 hectares of land and lakes with cute little wooden houses spread among the plants.

After 20 years away from Christiania, Beatrix, another 50-year-old, has come back to one of those houses. She left to raise her kids on a farm, away from the "temptations" of Christiania's streets. "I had to come back," she says. When asked what she does for a living she says: "In Christiania, you don't make a living. You just live."

Read more from Le Temps.

Photo: Kethevane Gorjestani

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