Paths through utopias

IssueMay 2008
Feature by John Jordan, Isa Fremeaux

There’s an icy February wind pushing us around what feels like a walled medieval city. Eventually we find a small arched opening in this strange city within a city; we step inside.

Suddenly we are in a town where looking at the stars is more important than having street lights, where cars are banned and there is no tarmac, where bicycles and pedestrian weave through the streets freely.

Seconds ago we were in the centre of a Copenhagen in a different universe; now we’re following streams of people past old brick warehouses with the warm welcoming glow of bars, restaurants and cafes.

More and more buildings seem to unfold in front of us revealing their brightly painted facades. Murals of sacred inuit animals, Buddhist deities swirling in smoke, monolithic portraits of dead rappers.
Irish folk music bounces out of a wild west-like bar. Ahead of us oil barrels are spilling flames in the middle of the street.

Men, some of them in black balaclavas, are standing around trying to keep warm. Others huddle under makeshift market stalls.

We keep walking and soon find ourselves on the edge of a tranquil lake dotted with dozens of wooden house every shape, size and colour – some resemble UFOs, others garden sheds on acid – all the realisation of their owners’ fantasies, or rather not “Owner” - that is the whole point.

We are in the sprawling “free-town” of Christiania, less than 200m from the Danish Parliament, where 800 adults, 200 kids, 200 cats and dogs, 17 horses and two parrots have lived on squatted military land since 1971.

Christiania stretches over 34 hectares of prime Danish real estate, but private property has never existed here; no one owns their own house, even if they’ve built them from scratch over decades. Everything is based on the right of usage.

When you want to move, you don’t sell or even decide who moves in. Your house goes to the local neighbourhood meeting (there are 13 autonomous neighbourhoods), people apply and the neighbours decide who is going to be their new neighbour.

Of course it’s messy and emotionally trying, but for 37 years they have managed this free town through consensus-based democracy.

Christiania has everything any town would have – there are bars, restaurants, kindergartens, art galleries, a bike factory, a few shops, a health centre, a blacksmiths, a cinema, rubbish collection, a sauna, a radio station, a recycled materials builders’ merchants, a theatre, a weekly newspaper, youth clubs and even their own postal service.

But this refuge for those who want to live free despite capitalism has had to constantly fight to keep its autonomy.

Now the claws of the neoliberal system that put property rights in front of human rights, is extending its grip more forcefully. It’s threatening to tear down much of the dream-like architecture, force people to buy the homes they built or renovated from ruins, and give up collective ownership.

The city of Copenhagen wants to eradicate what they once tolerated as a “social experiment” and build new tower blocks, a bland municipal park and yet another trendy cappuccino district. But this oasis against authority has always survived an encroaching desert, mostly through its secret weapon: “talking”.

One of Christiania’s symbols is a snail; “It’s the speed of democracy,” say the Christianites. Every response to government proposals has to be reached through consensus. With 850 people, it takes for ever.

The government knows they could never forcefully evict Christiania and have to play a waiting game. So far, resistance through slowness seems to be working.

Topics: Utopias