Denmark Christiania: New challenges for Copenhagen's hippy zone

Bird sculpture, Christiania
Image caption Christiania was set up as a squat nearly 40 years ago by a group of enterprising hippies in a disused military barracks

The hippy commune of Christiania in Copenhagen battled for decades for the legal right to run its own affairs. Now that it has won, the BBC's Anna Holligan asks how will it cope with the responsibility, and particularly an alarming illicit drugs market.

"'It's not a perfect society, but one of the nice things about being here is that it doesn't have to be," says one resident, who calls himself only Vesinger.

Vesinger delivers his assessment of Christiania with obvious affection. He has lived here with his two little boys for six months, a recent convert to the Christianian way of life.

And it is not hard to see why this tiny enclave just south of Copenhagen's city centre is an attractive location for a family.

Trees and plant life thrive free from human interference and pesticides. It is more racially diverse, culturally open and creatively expressive than your average Danish neighbourhood.

Christiania has been a squat for nearly 40 years, ever since a group of enterprising hippies broke down the fences and set up in the disused military barracks.

And after a recent government ruling, this small society is celebrating its independence as a kind of semi-autonomous region. They call it Freetown Christiania.

Alternative, not ideal

Kerstin Larson, a flame-haired, straight-talking social anthropologist, moved here 31 years ago after falling in love with a local.

Image caption Kerstin Larson has been a resident for more than three decades

"It gave me the chance to have a life that was not boring."

Now she takes curious tourists on guided tours through the graffiti-adorned streets of her adopted hometown.

"As you can see we have invested so much of our time and our heart into this place, we have made it what you see here.

"I'm very proud of what we've done. It's an artists' free town, we are eco-friendly but, yes, it's not an ideal society - it's an alternative society."

For years, the residents have been fighting for the right to remain in Christiania.

Ever since its inception, various governments have tried to have the squatters forcibly evicted, arguing that it was an unregulated hotbed for drugs and other illegal activities.

After months of negotiations, they have finally reached an agreement that keeps the politicians and most of the people happy.

Under the new rules, residents are allowed to buy their land at knock-down prices and the remainder will be put up for rent by the state.

Although this effectively turns a hippy haven into a local council, for Ms Larson it means for the first time they can exist in security as well as peace.

"It will be a new way of living," she says.

"We do not have to worry anymore about whether the government will throw us off our land. Hopefully now that we have won our right to own the land, then we will be able to feel more secure and start to deal with some of the problems that exist here."

Because life in Christiania is not all peace and free love.

Survival of the strongest

The residents' liberal attitude towards cannabis, coupled with a rather inconsistent police approach to its sale, has made way for a darker force to infiltrate the otherwise carefree society.

Image caption Vesinger says Christiania's hippy dream has now made room for organised crime

There have been outbreaks of violence including gun battles on the streets as rival gangs fight for control of Christiania's drugs trade.

On the notorious Pusher Street, skinheads with pitbulls glare menacingly from behind their stalls draped in camouflage netting at anyone who looks like they might be there to do anything other than buy drugs.

Khaki pants and bandanas make it look more like downtown LA than part of the leafy society that surrounds it.

The founding fathers built Chistiania with an ideological vision of openness, love and altruistic living. To these dealers, that freedom is there to be exploited for financial gain.

Back in the relative safety of Vesinger's chaotically charming back garden strewn with homemade children's toys and random items of ageing furniture, he acknowledges that their freedom has come at a price.

"I think if you'd have looked at Pusher Street 10 years ago, it would have been the perfect hippy dream," he says.

"There were booths full of flowers, people had painted their little cannabis sales stands, but that's changed.

"There's been zero tolerance towards cannabis from the government, a lot of police presence in Christiania, raids and things and that's meant only the strong survive.

"The soft hippy pushers who were there to make just a little money to get by have found it hard to survive in that environment - whereas the more organised crime element who know how operate as proper businesses have stayed and are thriving here."

Tourist appeal

If Christianians want their free society to thrive, they believe they have to weed out those who are "killing the vibe".

As Copenhagen's second most popular tourist attraction, it is perhaps in the new community council's interest to expel all those who threaten the founding principles that this land of overgrown bushes, life-sized Buddhas and giant recycled bird statues was built upon. And now they have more power to do that.

"A lot of Danes do see Christiania as a place full of crime and drugs," Vesinger concedes.

He led the negotiations with the government and hopes that in time they can use the newfound unity to deal with the drugs issue - not just locally, but on a national level too.

"I would like to see the discussion of legalising marijuana taken on rather than just pushed under Christiania's carpet," he says.

"I hope that now the power is in our hands, we can start to show the world that Christiania is so much more than just somewhere to come to buy a joint."

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