Peace, love and understanding

Dominic Murphy visits Copenhagen's vast commune, Christiania, just 10 minutes from the Danish parliament. It's a million light years from convention ... but getting closer
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The Independent Culture
As weird districts in West European capitals go, you will have some trouble beating Christiania. You enter this giant squat, 10 minutes' walk from the Danish parliament, via "Pusher Street". Here among dope dealers, scraggy dogs and stalls selling food to make your bowels move, it is hard to imagine you are not in some kind of time warp. Harder still to believe this is happening right under the Establishment's nose.

But though the rock fest retro feel might make you think otherwise, this 800-strong community is in the process of being legalised. Since 1988 an agreement called the Ramme Deal has been gradually toning down certain "alternative" aspects of this culture. Not quite squeaky clean Copenhagen, you have to admit, but still a reflection of changing attitudes on either side.

"This is not the Seventies or Eighties any more," says Joana Francis, 24, who sums up the community's Nineties mood. "I don't believe in this hippy ideal thing - all parties and loads of drugs - but I still believe in an alternative culture."

Francis was a toddler when the colonising hippies settled in 1971. The 80-acre site had been derelict for years. Once the narrow lake had defended the city and the elegant brick buildings housed Christian IV's soldiers and munitions workers. The hippies, in full system-bashing mode, had ready- made homes waiting for them. They tapped into the local water and electricity supplies, and declared themselves a "freetown" - free of Nato, the EEC, the Danish government and any other symbol of the Establishment they could think of.

So began a long-term headache for the state. "Politically, it has always been a hot potato," says Palle Heilesen, spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs. "The right wants the whole thing pulled down. The left wants it as a social experiment. That's typical of Denmark; we always look for something a bit in the middle."

The Ramme Deal was supposed to sort this all out. The citizens of Christiania agree to try to toe the line - to pay taxes and stop pinching water and electricity. In return, the government promised officially to recognise its existence, bringing it into the Copenhagen fold and the Nineties.

Not a moment too soon. Walking around Pusher Street you would think time stood still when Sergeant Pepper was all the rage. There are murals and graffiti everywhere, some with the predictable fare of psychedelia, peace, love and Krishna; others rendered in the sad, mystical mumbo jumbo aesthetic that bottomed out in Roger Dean album covers.

But to be fair, this is only half the story. Over the years, Christiania has established itself in an impressive way. Although 75 per cent of Christianites still claim the dole, teachers, civil servants, lawyers and doctors live here and go to work in the city. A sense of an urban Good Life has overtaken the idea of non-stop spliffs and public utility freebies. "It's like being in the country in the city," says Lisbit Olsen, a social worker who moved here four years ago. "I think its bad for you to live in a city surrounded by houses; you need green trees around you."

There's more of a sense of what Olsen is talking about at the end of Pusher Street. Here the cannabis scene gives way to central Christiania and the sort of buildings you would expect in any normal community. There are bars, a creche, a communal bath house, a post office.

To the right is a playground surrounded by agitprop recycling signs. The original Christianites had impressive green credentials, partly because they had to cope with their own waste for so long, partly because of their ideals. "Maybe you can say we are avant-garde in the way we live," says Ole Sonderby Petersen, a 33-year-old civil servant. "We have been talking about environmental issues for years; now schools and colleges come to see how we live and maybe not make the same mistakes."

Also here are the bulk of the community's workshops. There are forges, a bicycle shop famous in the city and another selling magnificently restored enamel stoves.

It is inside these workshops that Christiania's cumbersome decision- making process begins. The community is divided into 12 cantons, which meet about once a week. Motions are passed which then go on to the bimonthly faelles meeting. Because anyone in the community can attend these and say what they want, it is somewhat difficult getting any kind of consensus.

"We don't have any ideology in common," says Petersen, confusingly. "We have in common that we live in the same area, but if you ask Christianites what they think, you get a new opinion on everything."

Past bars, stables, cottages and more workshops, you leave behind metropolitan Christiania. Now you come to a miniature lakeside suburb. Again there is that sense of a tie-dye time warp: one cottage shaped like a flying saucer; others seemingly straight from the pages of Tolkien.

But this area, which includes a canton called the Milky Way, is the part that is having the most difficult time confronting the Nineties. Under the Ramme Deal, Christianites have agreed to demolish some of the houses around the lake; according to the government, eventually they should get rid of them all.

This, says Petersen, is a concession too far. Although no one really thinks they should return to the days of free love and free electricity, he says, there is a case for more of a distance from the state. "I believe in the old vision of Christiania - you could call me a fundamentalist. We should establish our old way of living in opposition to the state."

Another sticking point is what to do about drugs. Christiania has made attempts to clean up hard drugs and tone down Pusher Street, but it draws the line at banning cannabis.

"I have been smoking regularly since I was 18 and I've never had any problems," says Petersen, who favours a situation like the Amsterdam coffee shop scene. "I've been doing good exams and have a good job."

But events may have overtaken this "fundamentalist" spirit. On 1 January, the committee that acted as go-between for Christiania and the state disbanded itself in protest at police non-cooperation with the Ramme Deal.

The problem is complex - typical of any issue involving this errant community. The police are refusing to patrol Christiania, fuelling, says the committee, the argument that the area is a haven for criminals and should be closed. For their part, the police say it is too dangerous to go there unless they are in patrols of 12 or more. To a civil liberties-minded coalition government, 12 or more coppers on the beat together in Copenhagen is unacceptable, and they are demanding the police go there in normal patrols of two.

Meanwhile, time passes and Christiania still thrives in its unique, contrary kind of way. No one really thinks it will ever become the same as the rest of Scandinavia. But if the Nineties generation begins to think this Ramme thing is becoming a bit of a bum deal, it should take heart by comparing itself to elsewhere. Imagine the same thing in London, for instance: Hyde Park invaded by travellers, soft drugs and sound systems and the authorities turning a blind eye.

At our most liberal, this would have been a tall order. Post Criminal Justice Bill, pigs might fly.