Saturday, January 7, 2012

Copenhagen's old hippie paradise going legitimate -- it's being "legalized'

Houston Chronicle - Friday, March 31, 1995
Author: MARY WILLIAMS WALSH, Los Angeles Times
COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- The bazaars of Afghanistan have been swept away with the anti-Soviet war. The high-altitude enchantments of Peru have been turned into killing fields by hard-line guerrillas. Bangkok has become a traffic jam, and Kashmir is a powder keg

Worldwide, cherished way stations on the old hippie trail -- the string of charming foreign backwaters where American flower children by the thousands once came of age aboard rattletrap Volkswagen vans enveloped in clouds of marijuana smoke -- have been overtaken by time, by war, by their own self-infatuation.

In Copenhagen, however, the old hippie paradise known as Christiania is meeting a "Big Chill" fate all its own: It is being "legalized" by the Danish government.

Observers are touting the Christiania experience as a model for other cities with problem neighborhoods.

A visitor enters Christiania through the gaily painted brick walls of an old naval complex in Copenhagen's gritty Christianshavn District -- and immediately gets the feeling of having traveled backward in time to an American college campus somewhere in the sex-and- revolution belt of the 1960s.

Here, sprawling across 85 acres of erstwhile barracks, munition depots and officers' quarters, are all the free-running mongrels, long-haired youths, tie-dyed T-shirts, experimental bicycles, macrobiotic food stands, psychedelic murals, cannabis and purple houses on stilts that a nostalgic child of the Age of Aquarius could ever want.

One of the main "thoroughfares" of Christiania -- which, as it happens, enforces a ban on cars -- is Pusher Street, where hash dealers in roadside stalls ply their trade without hindrance from the state.

The first residents moved here in 1971, when the military was scaling back and left the aging waterfront compound empty. By 1973, about 1,500 squatters were tapping into the Copenhagen power grid, helping themselves to free water from the city mains and writing themselves a three-part code of conduct: No violence, no hard drugs, no cars.

Beyond that, all was anarchy. Christiania declared itself a "free town" -- free from NATO, free from the European Economic Community, free from taxes , free from all manner of normal civic obligations and responsibilities.

The radical intellectuals who supplied the ideology argued that, far from being parasites, the Christianites were "paying" for their homes in sweat equity, by keeping prime downtown real estate in habitable condition after the Danish armed forces had abandoned it.

Over the years, many Danes have told opinion pollsters that while they would not want to live in Christiania, they like having the settlement there, perhaps as an enriching social experiment, or perhaps just as a handy place to keep urban undesirables -- drug abusers, alcoholics, the deranged -- out of the way.

But critics have long wanted to know why should ordinary people pay for electricity and water when Christianites are allowed to steal whatever they fancy? And why should everyone else be obliged to pay taxes when Christianites live as they please, evade all taxes -- and score handsomely from Denmark 's bountiful social-welfare system?

About 70 percent of Christianites, after all, are on the dole.

All these bad feelings seemed to come to a head at election time, recalls Peter Barsoe, a former computer programmer who lives in Christiania with his family and runs a "social office" where residents can find out what they have coming from Denmark 's smorgasbord of state social services. The Danish Defense Ministry pays his salary.

"Every two years, we had these riots going on," Barsoe says. "It tended to be unbearable for everybody." Police would barge into the settlement and bust this or that unlicensed bar or hash dealership.

The Christianites would, in turn, drive the police away with rocks and gasoline bombs.

"(The compound) was built for the military, so it's very easy to defend," Barsoe says.

It was only in the late 1980s that the Danish authorities came to the conclusion that it was physically impossible to evict everyone from Christiania and fence the place off. So the government turned to a strategy of negotiation instead. This was a delicate business: What self-respecting anarchist wants to be seen parlaying with the Establishment?

But the government was able to win some Christianites over by reminding them that their utopia was becoming a hide-out for drug lords and other criminals, and that without help, it might not survive.

The government won the Christianites' signatures by resorting, one last time, to eviction threats.

The pact makes special provisions for Christiania. The settlement's taverns, for instance, have a flexible licensing process that involves the Defense Ministry. And the minimum wage at Christiania's businesses is lower than the national norm.

"It's our job to legalize Christiania, not to normalize it," explains a government pragmatist