Thursday, July 12, 2012
Letters from the field: Buying a share of utopia in Copenhagen
I’ve just returned from several weeks of travel, and thought I’d post on several items I saw along the way. The first of these was a utopian community in Copenhagen, Denmark, called Christiana. Christiana is on an island, Christianhavn, adjacent to the central city of Copenhagen that had been used for military purposes for centuries. When the Danish military closed a base on the island in the Sixties, some freedom-loving hippies and other radicals set up shop by squatting on the land, declared their independence from the Danish state (adverse possession is for sissies, apparently), refused to pay taxes, and otherwise have engaged in community- and ganja-based decision-making ever since. About 1,000 residents now call Christiana home.
There are several aspects of Christiana that I think land use folks will find interesting. First, after four decades of tolerating open rebellion in its midsts, the Danish government finally decided that it needed to do something about Christiana. You might be anticipating a “throw the bums out” approach; but remember, this is Denmark, not Rudy Giuliani’s New York City. Instead of mounting riot troops at Christiana’s borders, the Danish government sent in their lawyers with an ultimatum: Christiana’s residents could stay, but they would have to buy the land from the Danish government. But the Danish government did not demand the market price for the property; instead, they offered the property to Christiana’s residents for a song. In a sense, all the Danish government is seeking to do is to legitimate the ownership of the land; in other words, if Christian’s residents “own” the land, there is some acknowledgment of the government’s control and sovereignty over that land. But, of course, the Christiana residents disdain this idea of ownership even though they need to raise capital to purchase the land.
The result has been one of the most peculiar of solutions: a stock offering of nominal ownership that investors can purchase.
As the New York Times described it:
[Christiana's residents] decided to start selling shares in Christiania. Pieces of paper, hand-printed on site, the shares can be had for amounts from $3.50 to $1,750. Shareholders are entitled to a symbolic sense of ownership in Christiania and the promise of an invitation to a planned annual shareholder party. “Christiania belongs to everyone,” Mr. Manghezi said. “We’re trying to put ownership in an abstract form.”
Since the shares were first offered in the fall, about $1.25 million worth have been sold in Denmark and abroad. The money raised will go toward the purchase of the land from the government.
I found this struggle over the idea of ownership to be fascinating. After all, the amount the Danish government is seeking from Christiana is far below the market price of the land in the now trendy area of Christianhavn. However, what the government is doing is forcing the utopian community out of its stance of declaring “independence” from the Danish state, while Christiana’s residents attempt to use arcane legal structures to avoid sullying their hands with the prospect of “ownership.” Am I the only one who thinks of Johnson v. M'Intosh on these facts?
The second interesting issue in Christiana was a poster located on the community’s main meeting room, which establishes the community’s “common law.” A picture is to the right. Now, at first blush, this will not look much like common law, but rather a visual statutory scheme, or maybe even something like the Ten Commandments if written for a biker gang. But it was the kind of rules that interested me: they speak, I think, to the kinds of problems that must have evolved in Christiana over time: hard drugs, biker’s colors, firearms, and so on. Each of these rules, you can imagine, resulted from a particular incident, and so a “common law” evolved in this place where all decisions are made collectively. Such a common law speaks to the potentially rough nature of standing as a state independent from the protection of the sovereign. It made me think of the devolution of all of the United States’ utopian communities, from New Harmony on down. Is such a slide into anarchy, or the fight against anarchy, inevitable in such utopian movements? I don’t know, but Christiana remains, and it seems to continue to thrive despite its troubles. It eeks out a living on the sale of rasta trinkets and “green light district” paraphernalia. And even in this space where there is supposedly no sovereign, there is still some law, borne of hard experience, common to all. Its future, cast somewhere between lawfully-abiding property owner and anti-property ownership crusaders, between freedom and the "common law's" protections, will be interesting to watch in the coming decades.