Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hippie haven nudged into mainstream - Denmark 's Christiania works with government to keep community alive

The Dallas Morning News - Friday, March 31, 1995
Author: Mary Williams Walsh, Los Angeles Times
COPENHAGEN, Denmark - The mud-walled hash haunts and dusky bazaars of Afghanistan have been swept away with the anti-Soviet war and its aftermath.

The high-altitude enchantments of Peru have been turned into killing fields by hard-line guerrillas.

Bangkok in Thailand 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.

"Christiania has been the most-debated single matter in the Danish Parliament," says Bo Christensen of the Danish Ministry of Defense, which has authority for the troublesome counterculture haven, made up of abandoned military buildings. "Now it's like Neville Chamberlain: `Peace in our time.' "

As outlaw European squatter colonies go, Christiania is one of the biggest and most firmly entrenched. It has inspired plenty of legislative blustering, newspaper headlines and university theses.

And now that the Danish authorities are nudging the colony into the social mainstream, 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, longhaired 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. Unconventionally designed houses - one is pyramidal - hug the shoreline of a narrow lake, an in-your-face violation of the city's building code. Wall paintings of a camera with a red slash through the middle warn the visitor not to photograph any of the extralegal transactions.

The first residents moved here in 1971, when the Danish military was scaling back and left the aging waterfront compound standing 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 sustaining ideology argued that, far from being deadbeats and 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 themselves, 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 for every Dane who is amused by the presence of a "free town" in the heart of the national capital, there is another who sees the place as an affront.

Why, Christiania's critics have long wanted to know, 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 follow the building codes, or pay taxes , when Christianites live as they please, evade all taxes - and score handsomely from Denmark 's bountiful social-welfare system in the bargain?

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

Some of the loudest objections have come from Copenhagen's tavern keepers, who do not like having to compete with Christianite bars that keep haphazard books, pay no taxes and let patrons light up unauthorized smoking materials. The police have also been frequent adversaries, complaining that they can't patrol normally in Christiania, and that for all its fine talk of no hard drugs, the place has been something of a free haven for heroin dealers.

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

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.

"You know that a dilemma is not the same thing as a problem," says the Defense Ministry's Christensen, who views the situation pragmatically. "You can solve a problem. You cannot solve a dilemma. You have to manage it."

Instead of sending in the police with batons waving, the government sent plenipotentiaries in search of Christianites who might be willing to negotiate a "legalization" pact. 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 officialdom's help, it might not survive.

"Those people aren't rebelling anymore," says Mr. Christensen, who was active in the negotiations. "They want a quiet life without any interference or any revolution . In a way, they are

conservative. They want to live and watch their children grow up, just like the rest of Denmark .

"I think they realized that they had to do something with their own structure or it would be the end of Christiania," the Defense Ministry spokesman adds. "We went to them and said, `You have, for the first time, the possibility to make your own laws - if you come to us and make an agreement.' "

About 300 meetings between the government and the Christianites followed. Typically, when a peace treaty made it into final form, the Christianites got anti-authority cold feet at the last minute and would not sign. The government won their signatures by resorting, one last time, to eviction threats.

The pact makes special provisions for Christiania, concessions unknown elsewhere in Denmark . The settlement's taverns, for instance, have a unique and flexible licensing process that involves the Defense Ministry. And the minimum wage at

Christiania's businesses is lower than the national norm.