Published Sunday, Aug. 12, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
Rebellious commune turns mellow, wealthy
'FREE STATE' IN DENMARK FEELING GROWING PAINS
BY CAROL J. WILLIAMS
Los Angeles Times
COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Don't trust anyone over 30.
That was the student-revolutionary refrain around the time a few dozen
longhaired malcontents seized an abandoned Copenhagen military fortress in
1971 and proclaimed the free state of Christiania.
But as Europe's most famous counterculture commune turns the Big 3-0 this
summer, many among the now 700-plus residents admit that they have traded
idealism and principle for heat and indoor plumbing.
From chirping cell phones to modern waterfront homes no less lavish for
being illegal, Christianites are looking decidedly Establishment these days.
Except for the soft-drug emporiums along Pusher Street and the lack of
paved roads and cars, Christiania is a fairly unremarkable neighborhood. No
longer squatters since negotiating legal status with the government six
years ago, Christianites now pay taxes and utility bills to the Danish
Defense Ministry their de facto landlord, and commune administrators bear
much resemblance to a small-town city council.
Alternative way of life
Founded to create an alternative to life in Scandinavia's highly regulated
cities, Christiania had only three rules in the beginning: No cars. No
violence. No hard drugs. Today, however, the commune's rules could rival a
fussy condo association's.
Well-heeled Christianites can flout city regulations under their legalized
outlaw status when building elegant homes along the old fortress points and
promontories affording regal views across Oresund strait. But their
building and expansion plans must pass muster among aging and cantankerous
neighbors, often a tougher court than law-abiding city planners. Homes must
be 100 percent ecological, and any registered resident can nix building
plans, whether on justifiable grounds, whim or vengeance.
Social life also espouses suburban values: The community subsidizes
breakfast at the Woodstock Cafe to make sure all Christianites receive
"If you don't get the right start in the morning, you can drift around all
day," Siv Jarto, an occasional commune employee and tour guide, saysas if
she were the first to have come to that conclusion. At one of Woodstock's
outdoor tables, a fortysomething couple play backgammon while having their
morning coffee and a marijuana cigarette.
In the center of the settlement, a beer garden is filled with tables shaded
by umbrellas preaching "Say No to Hard Drugs." There's an Alcoholics
Anonymous chapter and a 24-hour bakery.
Christiania remains outside both city and Danish government structures, but
the 1995 compromise worked out between the squatters and the Defense
Ministry whose land they had seized has resulted in relative peace and
The knife of respectability has cleaved Christiania into rival camps,
however. Old-timers who have mellowed with age want the pushers moved out.
Younger would-be dealers resent that their elders are trying to deny the
new arrivals an indulgence their predecessors fiercely demanded for themselves.
"But nothing here is black and white," said Soeren Raa, a co-founder of the
Green Hall building materials network. "I have some very good friends who
sell hash, but some of the others I'd like to see pushed out of the commune."
Only registered residents of the commune are supposed to be eligible to buy
supplies at the store, because Christiania's token sales taxes would
otherwise undercut the law-abiding merchants on the outside. But with so
much building and upgrading going on in the aging hippie commune, Green
Hall had almost $1 million in sales last year, still third behind the
bakery and the Christiania Bikes shop producing novel pedal-powered
transport and delivery vehicles.
Christiania's most famous product is also a victim of its own success. So
many of the customized tricycles and trailers have been ordered from
outside the commune that production had to be moved to a factory on the
island of Bornholm, says founder Priben Smed. The parts are made on the
island, then shipped back to Christiania for assembly and sale under a
special tax arrangement.
Smed says legality hasn't spoiled the commune for those who left the rat
race for sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. But he concedes that it has changed
"It's been good for those who want to create something," Smed says. "But
it hasn't been good for the fighters. We have no enemies anymore, and as
with U.S. foreign policy, when the traditional enemies disappear, you look
for new ones."
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