By Rick Steves
Denmark's government is gunning for Copenhagen's counterculture Christiania neighborhood. But the challenge may just make that hippie haven a bit stronger.
Since taking over in 2001, Denmark's coalition government — its most conservative in decades — has vowed to "normalize" Christiania, a funky mishmash of idealists, potheads, hippies and their happy kids.
This former navy barracks, occupying 80 acres of prime waterfront real estate, is still owned by Denmark's Ministry of Defense. Over the past three decades, residents have built their own homes but they've "borrowed" the land. And if the government has its way, the loan may be up. As a way of giving notice, police have raided the pot dealers who openly ply along Pusher Street, Christiania's main drag. At the same time, real estate developers launched an architecture contest to replace the existing residences with posh apartments.
To keep from being such easy targets, Pusher Street's pushers have "retaliated" by ripping down and burning their makeshift sales huts. Besides, it's easier to do business from their overcoats. Improvisation has been the hallmark of this community since 1971, when the original 700 Christianians established squatters' rights on this abandoned piece of property, just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building.
Among the thousand current residents, only a handful of Willie Nelson-type seniors date back to the original takeover. The community's 40-year struggle against authority has attracted support from all around Europe and the US, a strange-bedfellows mix of middle-age Deadheads, brainy socialists, and right-wing libertarians. And an amazing thing has happened: The place has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.
Visitors see much more than Pusher Street. Christiania is a fascinating ramshackle world of moats and earthen ramparts, alternative housing, cozy tea houses, carpenter shops, hippie villas, children's playgrounds, peaceful lanes, and people who believe that "to be normal is to be in a straightjacket."
There's no buying or selling of property. When someone moves out, the community decides who will be invited in to replace that person. A third of the adult population works on the outside, a third works on the inside, and a third doesn't work much at all. There are nine rules: no cars, no hard drugs, no guns, no explosives, and so on. The Christiania flag — red with three yellow dots — is heavy with symbolism. When the original hippies took over, they found a lot of red and yellow paint. The three dots are from the three "i"s in Christiania.
Will the establishment succeed in converting Christiania from hippie to yuppie? Today, red and yellow banners that declare Bevar Christiania — "Save Christiania" — fly throughout Copenhagen, and office workers wear the same message on lapel buttons. Danes fear that, along with this funky neighborhood, a part of their independent spirit may also be bulldozed. Denmark will become a little less free — and a little more like us.