Danish misfits gravitate toward one notorious neighborhood in Copenhagen

May 31, 1992|By Linda Matchan | Linda Matchan,Boston Globe

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- There are no street signs in this neighborhood of Copenhagen, but you don't need one to find the most infamous street in Christiania.

You can't miss "Pusher's Street." Enter the so-called "Free City" of Christiania through the brightly painted red-and-yellow arch, and in moments the pushers will be swarming around you like flies.

"Hashish? Hashish?" they beckon from either side of the dirt street that is notorious throughout Scandinavia. About 20 pushers were out on the street one recent Monday morning, vigorously waving their hard bricks of hashish, which, although technically illegal in Denmark, is plentiful in this community of 1,000.

Drug users, the homeless, the mentally ill, runaways -- Christiana is a magnet for all manner of people on the fringes of society. The "Free City," where for 20 years police have chosen not to enforce drug laws tightly, is one of Denmark's most remarkable eccentricities.

But to some in the United States, Christiania is also a community that might have some lessons for Americans.

Those who study the way the United States deals with its own population of dropouts say there is something pragmatic and intriguing about the idea of a community that tolerates soft drug use and encourages those on the margins of society to restrict their illegal activities to one neighborhood.

Danish officials say that while alcohol is heavily consumed in Denmark, other drugs are used less frequently than they are in America. Crack, which has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, is virtually unknown in Denmark.

While President Bush and his drug-policy adviser, Bob Martinez, still champion an all-out "drug war" to eradicate all forms of drug use, a growing contingent of Americans has concluded that the drug war is unwinnable. Better to admit defeat and allow some regulated soft drug use, they say, than to escalate the illegal drug trade. Better to ghettoize some social problems in a neighborhood that tolerates such behavior than to have them spill over into public streets.

"I wouldn't want to see my kids living" in Christiania, said Eric Einhorn, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who studies social policies in Scandinavia, "but it is an effective way of dealing with problems a lot of societies have. There are a lot of people who just can't make it."

Danes seem to have accepted this as a given. And this appears to be part of the reason authorities have declined to take any firm steps to close Christiania, even though it has been a political hot potato since it was formed in 1971 by a group of leftists who took over the abandoned military barracks protesting a lack of affordable housing.

Christiania has become accepted as an antidote, of sorts, for some of Denmark's social problems, which Danes fear are increasing now that the unemployment rate has reached 9.5 percent. "We have a lot of lonesome, not-needed people in Denmark," said a civil servant. In 1989, Parliament passed a law to make Christiania a legal entity of Copenhagen, and today it is a lively, self-governing community with restaurants, bars, day-care centers, shops and a small number of industries.

While the "flower power" undertones are barely in evidence anymore, its residents still adhere to a lifestyle that is proudly unconventional. "Lov Nej Tak" -- laws, no thank you -- reads a hand-lettered sign on one of the buildings, which like many of the dwellings is painted with loud psychedelic designs or stenciled cannabis leaves. Hashish use is central to the Christiania lifestyle but heroin and other hard drugs are prohibited by one of the few rules of Christiania life.

"We are just normal people who want to live in a different way," said Vibe Pock-Steen, who moved to here 11 years ago, when she was 16.

"Christiania serves an important psychiatric function," said Poul Qvist Jorgensen, a member of Parliament and former social worker who has been chairman of a Christiania committee that oversees the community's activities.

Many of its residents are mentally ill, he points out, "or are often people who could not be helped by the official system. They are having a better life in Christiania. I think many people who might be sleeping in the streets live in Christiania."

Many Danes are incensed that Christiania's free-spirited residents refused until very recently to pay their full share of taxes or fully remunerate the city of Copenhagen for their use of water and electricity. They are also peeved that Christiania, situated on 84 acres next to a lake, occupies some of the most lush, most valuable land in the city.

To a newcomer's eye, Christiania is no utopia. Indeed, it resembles a World War II blitz zone, with its paths littered with garbage, its ramshackle, jerry-built dwellings, a population of 300 dogs joining the disheveled men and women aimlessly wandering about. About 500 of the 800 adults residents survive through social welfare or disability pensions, according to police.

"It is a very sad story," said Anders Uhrskov, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen.

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