Threat Posed to Groovy Colony

Toronto Star, COPENHAGEN >> The only vehicle in sight on this quiet morning is a small garbage truck easing its way over the cobblestone paths. An unharried Dirg Schwartz is employed by the self-governing “colony” of Christiania. Throwing rubbish from the truck into a compressor, he stops to explain the philosophy behind the community as he sees it, after 25 years here.

“We can take care of ourself,” he says with a pronounced accent. “You know, based on the thought that everyone knows best what is good for his life, if that sets an example for the rest of the world, I would say the politicians would get unemployed … you, me, anyone, we don’t need anyone else to tell us what is good and bad. This is kind of built in.”

Christiania is one of a dwindling number of alternative or “intentional societies” born in the 1960s and 1970s. Abundant in the age of love, peace and good drugs, they are now finding it hard to survive.

Across Europe, centres of non-conforming cultures are being shut down. Le Rhino and La Tour in Geneva were emptied last month. The Koepi in Berlin is going to be auctioned off. Squatters Garageband for iphone download have been expelled in large numbers in Amsterdam.

Denmark’s so-called social experiment began in 1971, when anarchists, hippies, and homeless people occupied, or squatted in military barracks and surrounding buildings that had been abandoned by the government. The colony grew to more than 900 residents.

Tourists from all over the world amble the car-less paths, fuelling the tiny economy as they buy all manner of local goods, from falafel to fabrics.

They pass cyclists, leash-less, wandering dogs, and artists painting murals and graffiti of a higher order. Around the corner from a quaint co-op grocery store is a co-ed naturist bathouse; further down the road are the Lady Blacksmiths workshop and a pottery shop.

Residents often exchange favours, work or services instead of cash. Some residents work in Christiania for the collective, and others work outside in Copenhagen. Quite a few are officially unemployed, but volunteer full time.

An informal “Consensus Democracy” calls meetings to make big decisions. Small ones like the division of labour between Dirg, the garbage man, and his colleagues, are made by the workers themselves.

People came to Christiania for a variety of reasons. Some to live cheaply. Some to do and sell drugs. Above all, it was a hippie movement aimed at escaping a materialistic mainstream with too many rules.

Willy Gregor, now 68, went on hunger strike in 1972 when the government was about to shut the place down. When the government saw a list of people prepared to join his hunger protest, they backed down. Residents saw they would be there for awhile, and began to build.

It’s a society that has strained itself to be as far from capitalism as it can realistically be in the middle of a cosmopolitan city. Houses change hands without as much as one Krone exchanged.

Not everyone had the same vision. Hard drug users started showing up in the late 1970s, and police even sent junkies to Christiania, telling them they wouldn’t be bothered there. Even today, drugs and all the problems they bring, won’t go away. Any tourist caught pulling out a camera in the centre of the village is warned in seconds to put it away by pushers, or the residents nearby who fear an outbreak of violence.

There has long been a power struggle between the pushers and the political activists, the former emerging the more powerful from the continuing demand for drugs.

Their lingering presence has brought other unwelcome guests. Large numbers of uniformed police have been patrolling these streets almost daily, ever since they closed the open hash market 3 ½ years ago.

Big brown bricks of hash were sold openly on table tops on the infamous Pusher Street. People who had nothing to do with the peace and love symbolized by Christiania came in from other parts of Europe to buy huge quantitites of hash for resale elsewhere.

But the community supported the market, says Klaus Danzer, a long-time resident: “It’s always been our way to say we want hash to be legal, so we sell it openly, as an act of disobedience.”

The right-wing government under Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen put an end to that in 2001, when they devoted more police resources to Christiania than ever before.

“The politicians of this government are of the generation where they were in high school during the 1960s and felt always the left wing were stronger than them. And now it’s time for revenge. Everything that reminds them of the 1960s is being reversed.”

While the government owns the land, Christianites have been recognised as the de facto custodians of the place. Residents pay user fees (no one calls it rent) as modest as about $250 each, to the Common Box, which is also filled with fees from the local businessess. The money collected pays for infrastructure repairs, utilities, and some salaries, all managed by the collective.

By last year, however, numerous residents were defaulting – some had failed to pay for many months.

Yet these problems – dodgy finances, drugs, a constant police presence – may be less threatening to Christiania than something more mundane: land values.

Christiania occupies prized real estate. A road and a canal separate it from properties worth millions of dollars. Huge boats pull up alongside the docks mere metres away, a constant reminder of the gentrification that could come the colony’s way.

“My opinion is that Christiania in 10 or 15 years will have so many private houses, and boat canals, and so on. Instead of having police, they’ll just build. And that will be the end of it,” says Copenhagen policeman Tom Olsen, who warmed to Christiania after patrolling it many years ago.

Government plans to build new apartments there have divided the community. One camp favours the move as a way of placating the government, another fears it will open the village to private housing unaffordable for current residents.

Carsten Yarlov, at the Government’s Palaces and Properties Agency, oversees relations with Christiania. “In the view of the state, and in the view of the big majority of the parliament, we have to solve this ownership question. We do not any more accept that they dispose of public property, which they don’t legally own.”

If things change drastically, does it matter? There is no shortage of people who say yes, precisely because Christiana is one of the few places left to live near a European city centre that is not the exclusive preserve of the rich.

North America saw the end of most of its bohemian communities many years ago. An exception is Morninglory Farm, a commune in Ontario near Wilno that survives to this day.

Toronto’s social experiment ended not long after it began when Rochdale College, a co-op student residence on Bloor St. near the University of Toronto, evolved into a hippie commune, before becoming a drug den that was raided by police. U of T Professor Peter Fitting, former president of the Society for Utopian Studies, says Europe is now following the widening embrace of a colder capitalism. “The government of (President Nicolas) Sarkozy in France is the last one to fall into place to rein in the welfare state. The hostility that people have even here, to homeless people and beggars – the idea that they should work or starve – is spreading. Collectives and communal spaces are so demonized that it is hard even to imagine places that would be based on sharing.”

Line Barfod, Danish MP for the opposition Red-Green Alliance, fears her country is abandoning the humane principles it once stood for.

“People ask us what’s going on in Denmark? It used to be a place with a lot of tolerance. We had room for people to be different, to have different opinions, with different ways, and values.”
Negotiations between Danish officials and Christianites will continue this year. The colony’s Consensus Democracy will subject the government’s proposals to build new properties and raise rents to vigorous debate, in what is shaping up as a repeat battle between economic values and the human ones hippies have always championed.

Leave A Comment