Up in smoke

For three decades, Europe watched agog as hippies, visionaries and drug pushers created an alternative society in Denmark's capital city. Now the police have moved in, and the bulldozers won't be far behind. John Walsh laments the fate of Christiania
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The Independent Online

The first sighting of the world's most famous hippie commune is pretty dramatic. Driving along the Princessegade, on the south-east corner of Copenhagen, barely a mile from the city's historic heart, Slotsholmen island, you spot a big wooden sign. Across two totem poles bearing a succession of carved and gurning heads is a wide, mahogany-coloured crossbar on which, highlighted in gold leaf, the word "CHRISTIANIA" is carved. The entrance suggests you're in a run-down arts centre and adventure playground. There are signs to exhibitions and museums, there are garden chairs on the cobbles, and people hanging out in the weak spring sun. There's a hard-to-pin-down smell of burning that's not quite woodsmoke and not quite cigarettes...

The first sighting of the world's most famous hippie commune is pretty dramatic. Driving along the Princessegade, on the south-east corner of Copenhagen, barely a mile from the city's historic heart, Slotsholmen island, you spot a big wooden sign. Across two totem poles bearing a succession of carved and gurning heads is a wide, mahogany-coloured crossbar on which, highlighted in gold leaf, the word "CHRISTIANIA" is carved. The entrance suggests you're in a run-down arts centre and adventure playground. There are signs to exhibitions and museums, there are garden chairs on the cobbles, and people hanging out in the weak spring sun. There's a hard-to-pin-down smell of burning that's not quite woodsmoke and not quite cigarettes...

And then there are the police.

Six cops are hanging around the entrance like bouncers, four men and two women. Both women have long copper-hued manes of hair, like Waterhouse's Lady of Shallot, but unlike Tennyson's forlorn heroine, they are packing handguns. Nobody can say why they're here, or why this scrubby wasteland should need to be policed. Their demeanour does not encourage questions. They specialise in long, threatening stares, as if they're wondering what they could nail you for, or how easy it would be to plant a few grams of weed in your pocket.

Walk around, and you find that Christiania is a dispiriting territory of ancient brick warehouses and higgledy-piggledy modern shacks amid acres of untended grassland, wires and rubbish. Every inch of its bricky hangars is covered with globular swathes of psychedelic paint, graffiti and gang-tags. Your first thought is to leave pronto before the feral inhabitants discover there's an intruder in their midst, but gradually a friendlier aspect appears.

There are cafés - like the Manifiskeren, or "Moonfisher" - that look as visitor-friendly as the bars in the Stroget, Copenhagen's main shopping street. Terraces of private houses appear, bearing cute names like South Pacific, with stripped-pine front doors and recently planted flower pots. If this is the countercultural rebellion, it's been designed by Alan Titchmarsh. The huge warehouse of Den Gra Hal (the grey hall) looms like a grey Lubyanka, but inside it's a gorgeous church-like structure, all 1850s beams and chandeliers, and tables laid out as for a dinner-dance. Bob Dylan once performed here. How cool is that?

The atmosphere changes as you wander into a cobbled roadway with garish bunting overhead, and knots of men hanging outside the Sunshine Bakery and the Oasen café. Signs insist on "No Photography". Pinched-looking Christianites in the local uniform of jeans, trainers and beanie hats scowl from doorways. For this is Pusher Street, Christiania's main drag and epicentre of all the recent violence, and gawping strangers are not welcome.

This is where, for years, with the connivance of the Copenhagen authorities, dealers in soft drugs flogged narcotics to young Danes and disbelieving tourists. The dealers worked from shacks done up in garish reds, yellows and greens, with names like "Zion Train" and "Silverhaze Superskunk". They did a roaring trade, but they've gone. Three weeks ago today, at 5am, before anyone could raise the alarm, the police stormed in, arrested 31 people and began dismantling the shacks. The city's chief of police, Kai Vittrup, told reporters: "An era in Christiania's history is over. The open marijuana trade is over. Pusher Street is gone and it won't be back."

But is Christiania itself gone for good? After 33 years of being indulged, cossetted and embraced by successive Danish governments, described since 1987 as a "social experiment" in living outside society and the law, is its time up?

Christiania started out in a moment of off-the-wall opportunism. In summer 1971 the Danish army moved out of a 100-acre site on the eastern edge of the city. In the 18th century it had been a naval fortress (complete with moat), and it was later used as a barracks by the occupying Nazi forces. When the Danish military left, local Christianshavn residents proposed to turn the old barracks into a public recreation space. A newspaper called Hovedbladet ran a piece wondering what might be done with the area. The answer wasn't slow in coming: hundreds of Danish hippies arrived, squatted in the brick barracks and began making their own dwellings. In November they declared their new home the Free State of Christiania - a district of Copenhagen that would exist outside its rules, rates, public utilities and laws. The city authorities declared it illegal and sent in the police. But the squatters were many and determined, and manned the barricades as if it was Paris in 1968. The police couldn't winkle them out. The authorities were reluctant to start a street war, and an uneasy truce prevailed.

Over the next 20 years, Christiania became a rent-free magnet for every Scandinavian dropout, post-hippie new ager or visionary looking to escape the 1970s rat-race. Gradually the Christianites (as they call themselves) established a working society. They set up a democratic government (though they always use the word "self-government") organised into councils - the Common Meeting, the Economy Meeting, the Area Meeting, the Busy-ness Council, the Co-operative Workers' Meeting, the House Meeting. Their deliberations tend to be long and exhaustive. "Experience has taught us," says their manifesto, "only to bring up one issue at each meeting."

Gradually they established a self-sustaining economy, growing organic vegetables, baking pure bread and setting up recycling programmes. Over the years, this unfeasible, ramshackle hippie encampment turned into a real town with shops and restaurants, elementary schools, music venues and forward-looking "businesses" for harnessing wind and solar energy. The town's engineering genius invented the Christiania bicycle, a curious, sit-up-and-beg machine with a complicated cat's-cradle of wires and struts. You can see them all over Copenhagen; a variant features a wooden pannier to carry small children.

Gradually, the Copenhagenites got used to this countercultural village on its doorstep. It turned into a tourist attraction: come and see the people who live outside capitalist society, pay no tax and never go near an office. When the police stopped crossing the threshold and drugs could be sold openly on Pusher Street, that too was a guilty frisson for visitors. For a certain cast of European thought in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a picturesque metaphor of freedom. "I worked in Christiania in the early Nineties, in a coffee-shop," says Malene Rungvald Christensen, a Danish television producer. "I had a boyfriend for six years, who lived there and still does, and I've a lot of friends from there. I did a lot of thinking when I was a part of Christiania. It was both a hard and a beautiful time, which asked a lot of me personally, but which gave me the strength to believe in myself and think that the impossible may not be impossible after all. The 'just do it' attitude of Christiania really makes sense."

Like most Christianites, Kenny looks like a man who has spent half his life freezing out of doors, waiting for something to happen. His long grey hair whipped by a chill wind, he complains of the forces ranged against Christiania: "They keep using this word 'normalisation'. They want to make it just like the rest of Copenhagen. It's the new government. For 30 years, we had the Social Democrats and they were good to us. The new government just wants the land to give to the rich. We're 10 minutes from the centre of Copenhagen."

Kenny turns out to be English, from "somewhere in the East End. I don't remember. I was a street trader in Oxford Street. Jewellery mostly. I've been coming here since 1971, and I started living here in 1976. It was very rough at first. I used to shit into plastic bags and fling them out the window." He laughs wheezily.

We're standing beside a stall selling chillum pipes and dope paraphernalia. Posters and stoned-humour cartoons hurl you straight back to the summer of 1971 and the druggy environs of The Great Gear Trading Company in the King's Road, Chelsea, which featured a sign that read: "Please do not ask us where to score because a refusal often offends."

Kenny was one of the pushers put out of work by the cops (who are now prowling around us, six more of them, a different bunch. They stare at us as we talk, as if daring us to take exception to their presence). "That was my business premises," he says, pointing to a yellow cabin with a Bob Marley face on it. He doesn't know how he'll make a living now. There's the rent to pay, after all. His home is a handsome wooden structure with its own spire. Nobody owns any property in Christiania, of course - they decide communally who should live where, and pay the central exchequer. "Once it was 400 kroner a month," Kenny says. "Now it's 1,000 each for me and my girlfriend."

In sterling, these figures are unimaginably low: about £40 and £100 respectively. I walk down the main residential area, where the houses are like fairy-tale cottages, gingerbread houses with huge shutters, hobbit burrows and safari-park rondavels, all crazy angles and pointy roofs, their colours a cacophony of wild blues and greens. Most are self-built, and a lot of care and work has gone into them. The fastidiousness of the inhabitants can be seen in the neat log-piles beside every front door.

Beside these houses is the old fortress moat. It's now a lake, with moorhens gliding along. On the far shore can be seen more done-it-yourself dwellings, rather more ramshackle. And as I stand there, I think: how in God's name have they held out for so long against the forces of real-estate capitalism and civic development? Because this is a gorgeous location for any Copenhagenite. By the lake, beneath the trees, it would be an Arcadian dream home for anyone with a few million kroner to spare. How the 900-odd veteran hippies of Christiania managed to keep away the bulldozers and estate agents for 33 years, by a combination of idealism and chutzpah, is beyond me.

Outside the local grocery/delicatessen/ candlemaker, I meet Peter Post, the township's spokesman, a grizzled figure in pebble glasses and baseball cap. "These are catastrophic times," he says. "Now the police come without warning and check out our businesses and associations. They promised they'd come in only to look for drugs, but it's clear they want to interfere with our self-government. Our self-governing construction is our sacred cow, and they should keep their hands off it. If they want to ask questions about money and how we finance things, they should ask the treasurers. We'd welcome that. That is the noble way. It's not for them to come in demanding people's registration numbers."

Post is a worried man because, tomorrow, Christiania stares oblivion in the face. Tomorrow, the government will present a policy statement to parliament about what they want to do with the territory (which of course they own, as it's still Ministry of Defence land). There are, Post says, three possible scenarios: "One, they will allow big companies to kick us all out, bulldoze the 200 homes here, and sell to private builders or keep it as a special park. Two, they will try to keep the Christianites here, but build new buildings as well. Three is the scenario offered by our lawyers, who suggest that the whole area should be taken from the government and put into a consortium, while a year or so is allotted for negotiations between Christiania and the community of Copenhagen to find a legal way of letting us stay. In return, we will undertake to work faster at renovating our homes."

Only a shining-eyed optimist would hold out much hope for option three. The best-case scenario is that Christiania will be turned into a municipal park where Copenhagenites can stroll and mingle. But its residents' chances of being allowed to stay on indefinitely paying a peppercorn rent in this derelict Eden are roughly the same as an icicle in Hades. For three decades it has intrigued the hard-working, clean-living Scandinavians as an experiment in alternative living, a life choice for the homeless, the drop-out, the crazy, the permanently drugged-up, the career hippie. It's been given leeway as a tourist attraction, the same way the spliff cafés of Amsterdam were granted a licence to be mildly wicked. But now it's payback time. Under the pretext of cracking down on drug dealers, the authorities will bulldoze the gingerbread houses and make millions of kroner on land deals. The commune will soon be no more, and the faint whiff of marijuana will disperse on the new expansionist breeze.

So the inhabitants of the township still hang out under their flag of yellow with red-spots, their faces set and grim, their feral dogs unfed, their livelihoods gone. The police amble through the cobbled streets looking for drugs or trouble, but mostly just staring at the locals, as if asking: "Why the fuck are you still here?" It's closing time in Christiania, and as they metaphorically switch off the lights, the residents can reflect on a curious irony. They had to be removed, not because this was an experiment that failed - but because it was one that succeeded.

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