Hidden away from Copenhagen ‘s tourist attractions, is a homeless encampment called Christiana. This is a city within a city, peopled by the impoverished and the weird; a mini-United Nations where black, brown and white live together in an incredible Utopia of their own creation – a junkyard made habitable, and decked up in psychedelic colours and exclusive graffiti, which at once attracts and repels.
In 1970, a group of Hippies appropriated some empty, unused godowns close to the Copenhagen harbour, and refused to be evicted by the legitimate owners. As the land belonged to the State, politicians entered the fray. While Conservatives advocated eviction, the Left was in favour of letting them stay. By 1973, the State was willing to tolerate it as a “social experiment,” for three years. In 1975, when the Police tried to clear the colony once more, they were met with a powerful protest by a 10,000 strong mob. A similar futile attempt was made in 1978, until better sense prevailed, and the Government realized the wisdom of containing such an anti-society group within a limited area, rather that having them spread over the city. And so, in 1986, the Government decided to recognize this colony as a part of the city, under a contract that no one could possess lethal weapons, no hard drugs would be sold, and no alcoholic brawls would be tolerated.
Today, 34 years down the line, Christiana this “ Paradise for Losers” has a population of a thousand people. Many of them are third generation residents. Only some receive social security. Others find odd jobs to do in the city, or are self-employed. Artists and musicians, tinkers and tailors, drug addicts and wastrels, they live in harmony. Housing is cheap, as their shelters are made from waste material. Broken down trucks, tin sheds, tattered canvas, cardboard and paper are all put to good use. Each family builds its own shelter, which cannot be sold. The streets have no names and the houses no numbers. The residents are known by nicknames. They have their own restaurants, a theatre for plays and concerts, a circus, a kindergarten, a playground, poultry runs, and a cycle shop, where cycles are made from scrap, with boxes attached for transporting material. These utility cycles are in great demand in Copenhagen , and proudly display the name Christiana on their sides.
There is no representative committee, and all residents attend meetings, which tend to be long drawn out and chaotic. Even so, there is some mechanism by which discipline is enforced. While the sale of Hashish is legalized in this area, Cocaine and LSD are prohibited. Addicts who cause problems are sent away to detoxification centres.
Each family pays 100 kroners per month into a common kitty, for water, electricity and garbage disposal. With so much Hashish available, one sees bleary-eyed residents in various stages of nirvana. Yet everything is peaceful, and visitors can walk around without fear of being molested. Photography however, is strictly prohibited.
There are quite a few Indian residents speaking Hindi and Tamil. Have they voluntarily opted out of the rat race, or were they compelled by circumstances, to seek refuge in such a chaotic dump? Here live a group of invisible Non Resident Indians, languishing unhonoured and unsung, in the Free City of Christiana, whose motto remains “One for all, and all for one.”
Sunday Herald 28-11-2004