Oct. 11, 2004, — -- Denmark's conservative government is gunning for Copenhagen's counterculture Christiania neighborhood.
But as history has shown, the challenge may just make that hippie haven a bit stronger.
Since taking over in 2001, the right-wing government has vowed to "normalize" Christiania, an ultra-human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, nonmaterialists, and happy children. In recent months, police have conducted regular raids on the pot sellers who ply Pusher Street, Christiania's main drag. And there's talk about developing posh apartments to replace existing residences.
Christiania, a former naval base occupying 80 acres of prime waterfront real estate, is still owned by Denmark's Ministry of Defense. In response to rising government pressure, Pusher Street's soft drug vendors recently ripped down their makeshift shacks. Although the shops may be gone, the merchants remain. Many predict that Christianians will withstand the government's challenge, as they have in years past. The community, which also calls itself Freetown, fended off a similar attempt in 1976 with the help of fervent supporters from around Europe.
The community dates back to 1971, when the original 700 Christianians established squatters' rights in an abandoned 18th-century military barracks just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. A generation later, Christiania not only survives, it thrives (600 adults, 250 kids, and 250 dogs). And the neighborhood has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.
Visitors see much more than Pusher Street. Christiania offers a ramshackle mix of cozy teahouses, decent restaurants, peaceful lanes, hippie villas, and children's playgrounds. You can take a guided tour of the place in July and August … and you can buy and smoke marijuana legally anytime of year (but don't take it out of the neighborhood or you'll risk arrest).
The community pays the city about $1 million a year for utilities and has about $1 million a year more to run its local affairs. A few "luxury hippies" have oil heat, but most use wood or gas. Locals build their homes but don't own the land. There's no buying or selling of property. When someone moves out, the community decides who will be invited in to replace that person. A third of the adult population works on the outside, a third works on the inside, and a third doesn't work much at all.
The community has one mailing address. A phone chain provides a system of communal security (they have had "bad experiences calling the police"). There are nine rules: no hard drugs, no guns, no explosives, and so on. Nothing is grown in Christiania because the ground here was poisoned by its days as a military base. Each September 26, the day those first squatters took over the barracks here in 1971, Christiania has a big birthday bash.
For 30 years, Christiania has been a political hot potato. No one in the Danish establishment wanted it. And no one had the nerve to mash it. The current conservative government is giving it a go. But "save Christiania" banners fly everywhere, and locals are confident that their free way of life will survive.
Christiania is open all the time. A walk or bike ride through the neighborhood is a great way to see how the people live. Tourists are welcome because they've become a major part of the economy. Visitors react in very different ways to the place. Some see a haven of peace, freedom, and few taboos. Others see dirt, drugs, and dazed people. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates over a quarter of the world's prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles … or build more prisons.