I’ve been putting off telling the Christiania story for awhile now — mostly because other things get in the way or because the timing seems off. No excuses today, though — the lovely lady turns 40, so what better time to enlighten you with a little lore than here and now.
I should preface this post by saying, this story is not about the bikes — the bikes are a by-product of the community of Christiania. The bikes were born there, and, perhaps more than anything else, aside from maybe the flag of Christiania, have become a symbol of the this one-of-a-kind community. But before the bikes, there were the barracks…
In 1971, there existed a number of decommissioned military barracks in the Central Copenhagen neighborhood of Christianshavn (Christian’s Harbor). With little security at the time, a number of young people began trespassing and ultimately broke in to use the area as a playground for their children. Thereafter, although still largely unorganized, the ‘takeover’ became a symbolic protest against the Danish government — for at the time, there was a shortage of affordable housing in Copenhagen.
A few weeks later, on September 26, 1971 Christiania was declared ‘open’ by a Danish journalist Jacob Ludvigsen who had recently scouted out this new squatter community. Ludvigsen then co-authored the Christiania mission statement which proclaimed:
The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.
From this point forward Christiania became a symbol of the hippie movement of the early 70s, and, after some time, was ultimately supported and deemed a ‘social experiment’ by the Danish government. (facts from Wikipedia)
Through the years there have been triumphs and tribulations and on more than a few occasions the future of Christiania seemed bleak, but through it all, the Freetown (as it’s known by the Danes) has prevailed and still exists some 40 years later.
My first impressions…
My first glimpse of Christiania was in 2007 when I visited my future wife, whom at the time was pregnant with our son. During this time she was working at Loppen — ground zero for the best concerts in Christiania. It is a bar and restaurant that plays host to everything from small, Danish bands to well-known international acts. Cozy, and raucous at the same time, much like the rest of Christiania, I immediately felt at home in the old building. We later walked through the rest of the surrounding area and I was instantly hooked on the vibe of this wayward section of what would soon become the city I called home.
It’s really hard to quantify, or even put to words what makes Christiania special, which might be the very reason that I continually balk every time I sit down to write this entry. I suppose it’s some combination of variables that, when mixed together in the right proportions give you an outcome greater than the sum of its parts. And that notion, in and of itself, is the very core of Christiania’s mission — if we all give a little, we can, together, create so much more.
Sometimes the magic of Christiania is something as simple and specific as an impromptu sing-along in the middle of an outdoor cafe and the underlying feeling therein that no matter how crazy or bad you sing or dance, it’s all good. Other times it can be the dirty, barefoot kids running recklessly in the middle of the worn out streets — no one really watching them, but everyone making sure they’ll be okay. It’s the guy with the funny hat talking to God knows who and the way the afternoon light bounces off the glassy surface of the lake. Sometimes it’s just the feeling of warmth you get knowing that nobody there has an agenda — just living for the next beer or the last drag. Sometimes it can be that simple. Nowhere in the world is that more evident than in Christiania.
The lay of the land
Nestled in a corner of Central Copenhagen and bordered by a small lake, old ramparts, graffitied fences, and some rough looking buildings is what I often refer to as the wildest place I’ve ever encountered. Wild doesn’t mean scary — I’ve been to some places that make your heart skip a beat at every corner, even in the daylight — but rather magical, confusing, eccentric, and completely juxtaposed from it’s neighbors. When you’re there, in the bowels of the Freetown, it’s tough to fathom that right outside the gates is a fully functioning city complete with modern buildings, people who wear ties to work, commercial enterprise, traffic lights, trucks, and other organized chaos.
Within the Freetown is a collection of people, buildings, and businesses unlike any I have seen before. And unlike the organized chaos of the city that envelops the Freetown neighborhood, Christiania might better be described as disorganized harmony. At first glance it can be ragged and lawless, but give it a closer look and something should shine through.
I will say, without hesitation, that it’s not for everyone — it takes an open mind and willingness to look deeper. My mom didn’t get it. At all. She never will. Sorry Mom.
‘Demographically’ speaking, Christiania is filled with a comedic cast of characters — artists, intellectuals, teens, tokers, trike pedalers, winos, wizards, pushers, potheads, tourists, bearded fellas, and at the heart of it all, the locals — numbering somewhere around 900. Or as I heard on the news today, a ‘small one thousand’.
Upon arrival at the border — Christiania is, in fact an autonomous entity with a well-defined perimeter – most people will enter through one of the main entrances, both of which are situated on Prinsessegade (Princess Street) in Christianshavn. This gets you into the fray pretty quickly (immediately) and if you’re not ready for it, you might be thinking — this is not, at all what I was picturing. These two ports kick you right into the ‘commercial’ section of Christiania, the aptly named Pusher Street. Riff-raff run amok and are happy to greet you as you think about making the turn back into the trendy neighborhood you just came from.
To avoid this immediate culture shock, I’d always recommend entering from the quiet side of the lake — here, you will be greeted with the quaint and whimsical hand built houses that line the shores of the lake rather than the distortion and debauchery found on the main drag. In fact, if you never set foot on Pusher Street, you might be just as happy. It took me three visits to make it to Pusher Street and I’ll say that it’s (kind of) worth seeing but is certainly not at all what Christiania is really all about.
On the southwest side of the lake that runs through Christiania is a bike path. It starts out as a paved surface, but once you officially enter Christiania — a few hundred meters down, it turns into a rugged dirt path and is marked with a sign stating that you are entering a ‘car-free’ area.
I just wrote a fairly long description of what you will find thereafter and how to proceed only to erase it without hesitation — Christiania should be explored on your own terms. The simple advice to start on the quiet side should suffice — from there, my friends, it’s your trip…
Things to remember…
Christiania is one of Copenhagen’s biggest ‘tourist’ attractions, but this does not mean that you are in an amusement park — though sometimes, I’ll admit it does have that quality about it. The people that live here are real people and they appreciate their privacy. This is not to say that striking up conversation with a lady hanging up her laundry is out of the question — in fact, Christiania might be the only place in Denmark where this would be okay. The Danes, in general, are a very reserved people and rarely speak unless spoken to. Keep in mind, however, that chatting up this lady, or the guy chopping wood, could, in theory, lead to a pot of tea, a couple of beers, and some other mind-altering substances should you hit it off!
But I digress…
Basically what I am suggesting is this: even though Christiania is built on good times and good people, it does not give outsiders the green light for lawlessness — leave that for the locals!
That is as basic an intro as I can give you. I want to tell more, but it’s almost impossible to do — you really need to be there to see what it’s all about. I hope the photos will do some justice. We are also working on the final edit of a film to give a bit more insight, so if this peaks your imagination we’ve got more in the pipeline.
All of the above said and considered, it might be worthwhile to know where the bikes fit into this fairy tale. If you’re ready, then hop in the box and we’ll go for a little ride…
The Legendary Christiania Cargo Bikes…
Christiania was built on the premise that it would be a self-sustaining community, and so, it follows naturally that there was a premium put on sustainability. Imagine that — sustainability talk in the early 1970s — craaazzzy…
From the outset, Christiania was a car-free neighborhood — it still is. This simple rule makes the community so much more open and accessible. People talk in the streets, kids run freely, and bikes cruise by at mind-numbingly slow speeds. The social benefits of living car-free can be so easily and naturally seen here that you probably wouldn’t even notice them until they were brought to your attention.
The Christiania cargo bikes were the offspring of this ordinance and way of life. People needed to be able transport goods and their children from one part of the neighborhood to the other, and the bikes offered the quickest way to accomplish that.
Enter the Christiania Smedien (The Forge of Christiania).
Founded by a few locals, the Smedien first started making bicycle trailers in the mid-1970s. Prior to this, most of the transport bikes in Christiania came as a result of the locals scavenging many of the existing mid-century ‘long-johns’ from greater Copenhagen. When that stash was depleted, more utility-based bikes would be needed. The trailers where the simplest way to convert a regular bike into one made for hauling.
But necessity is the mother of invention…
And in 1984, Lars Engstrøm, one of the blacksmiths at the forge designed and built a transport trike similar, though noticeably smaller in appearance, to the industrial transport trikes common in the first half of the 20th century. He would make the first one for his wife, Annie, who at the time had her hands full with two young girls all the while working at the adjacent Kvindesmedien (the women’s forge). Lars presented it to her on her birthday.
As the story goes, Annie wasn’t overly thrilled with this contraption — she wanted a racing bike. But didn’t everyone want a 10-speed in the early 80s?
Unshaken, Lars loaded the kids in the box and Annie took it for a spin around the block. She came back with an ear to ear grin and the kids wanted to go for another trip. The rest, they say, is history…
The bikes, over the next few years were, more or less, confined to Christiania — residents rarely needed to leave the neighborhood and outsiders, at this point in time, had little desire to enter. But times changed and soon the bikes had spilled, in one way or another, onto the streets of the bustling city just outside the front door of the Freetown.
After awhile, all of the local orders had been met within Christiania — though this took some time, as everybody wanted one after that first, fateful ride. From there, Lars and the other smiths started to take outside orders and soon Smedien, tucked in the easternmost corner of Christiania, had become a full-fledged business, catering now to an increasingly ‘mainstream’ market.
By the mid-90s the demand had far exceeded what was possible in the small factory in Christiania, so Lars and Annie moved the production to the small Danish Island of Bornholm. The bikes are still, to this day, made in Bornholm — Lars is still in charge of the factory operations and Annie still handles all of the phone calls and emails. Only now, they live in the countryside and 20 other happy workers come in everyday to make bikes for people not just in Denmark, but around the world.
But Christiania did not get lost in the move. The original factory still exists, only now it serves as a retail location for people around Copenhagen to get their bikes. It still looks very much the same, I imagine, as it did when the production moved to Bornholm. Only now it serves as a final assembly point for the bikes and not as the main production facility. It should be noted that other bike shops sell Christiania bikes in Copenhagen, but Smedien is by far (and I mean far), the largest retailer of the bikes.
The fact that the bikes can still rightfully call the old neighborhood home, I think, provides a nice bit of continuity to the ever-changing story of Christiania…and her bikes.
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