August 31, 2006
Copenhagen Hippie Town Christiania Under Pressure
By Rasmus Nord Jorgensen
COPENHAGEN - "Do you want hash?" the young man asks passers-by on Pusher Street, once a thriving open-air drug market in the heart of Christiania and now an example of how times are changing in this famous Danish "free town."
For decades, Christiania clung to the principles of its hippie founders, who started the settlement as a squat in a deserted barracks in Copenhagen in 1971. It grew into a tourist hotspot, largely thanks to an easy trade in soft drugs.
The waterfront district feels like an oasis: rose bushes and wild hedges twist between the haphazardly built homes, workshops, cafes and workmen's huts.
People sip beer or smoke joints on benches, while dogs sunbathe on the worn cobblestones.
The community, which does not recognize Danish law, governs itself by consensus on everything from finances to disputes between neighbors. Despite drugs being illegal, marijuana was for decades sold openly at stalls lining Pusher Street.
That changed when police started a wave of raids two years ago and now the stalls are gone.
"There is only a small group of dealers left, but it is the toughest and most hard-bitten who remain," said long-time Christiania resident and documentary film-maker Nils Vest.
More fundamental changes are in the works for the area of prime real estate in one of the world's most expensive cities.
The center-right coalition government wants to construct new buildings, remove houses from old ramparts, restore historic buildings and introduce normal ownership rules in the area, requiring residents to pay rent.
"Our goal ... is to transform Christiania so it becomes part of the Danish society and conforms to the rules and regulations of the rest of the society," said Christian Wedell-Neergaard, a Conservative party coalition member.
In the true spirit of the "free town," Christiania's around 800 residents are discussing the plans with the government.
"There are still problematic and unconditional things which we have to deal with but there are also positive things, and we are optimistic," said lawyer Knud Folschack, chief negotiator for Christiania's residents.
NOT ALL ROSY
Built some 300 years ago to strengthen Copenhagen's defenses during a period of constant war with nearby Sweden, Christiania covers some 86 acres between a moat and sea inlet.
After a small group of hippies first occupied it in the 1970s, they were joined by hundreds more and pledged to build a new society of tolerance, democracy and environmental awareness. The Danish state, with a tradition of tolerance and a distaste for confrontation, never forcibly evicted them.
It's a "true anarchistic village democracy where every resident can take part in the decision-making," says Vest. "There are no cars, except for the garbage truck. I know all my neighbors. There is no vandalism and hardly any burglaries."
It hasn't always been so idyllic in the "free town" where residents include middle class citizens, welfare recipients, drugs users and criminals, according to a government report.
The community was invaded in the late 1970s by hard drug dealers controlled by violent motorcycle gangs but in 1980 it fought back, throwing the dealers out and offering junkies withdrawal treatment.
In 2004, the Danish parliament ordered an end to 30 years of open marijuana trade. Scores of riot police entered Christiania to enforce the ban.
Now, the force patrolling the area has been reduced to 13 officers. Police say the operation has been hugely successful.
"Dealers came from Sweden, Norway and Finland to buy cannabis in large quantities, because it was cheaper here and the chance of getting caught doing the deal was very small," said narcotics police chief Steffen Steffensen.
Critics say the trade spilled into the rest of Denmark's capital. Since Pusher Street was closed down, there has been an increase in gang violence in Copenhagen.
"In Christiania there were certain unwritten rules. They didn't sell to the very young, they didn't accept stolen goods as payment, they didn't sell hard drugs like heroin, and that has been exchanged for an unknown situation," said drug researcher Michael Jourdan.
It is that spirit of uniqueness and self-sufficiency residents want to preserve as they go head-to-head with the government over its plans to change Christiania, where until now residents only paid a kind of community tax for services like electricity and water.
Lawyer Folschack says a foundation will be set up to administer housing and business properties under the new rules, but details still have to be worked out -- through consensus of course.
"In my opinion, Christiania will remain as a social and housing experiment," he said.