Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Conservatives plan change for Copenhagen commune

TERMINATED?By next summer, parliament is expected to vote on a redevelopment plan for Christiania that would end its 32-year-old experiment in community living

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , COPENHAGEN

Ever since a group of squatters took over an abandoned military fortress in the heart of this intimate, orderly city 32 years ago, their "free town," Christiania, has caused the government untold heartburn.

What began as a social experiment in communal living now draws hundreds of thousands of tourists. Hashish is sold freely on Pusher Street and smoked openly, despite the Danish law forbidding both activities. Houses built mostly without official permission are not bought and sold, but loaned to kindred spirits selected by other residents. There are no roads, and thus no cars.

Problems are solved in-house; residents meet, and meet, until they reach consensus, whether on sanitation or schooling. If violence breaks out, the threat of baseball bats does the job. The police are called in only as a last resort.

"Here in Christiania, we are very honest and very law-obeying," said Karsten Malmos, 43, a strapping man who lives in Christiania with his wife and two young children. "We only don't obey the law when it's a stupid law."

Such talk does not sit well with the ruling Conservative Party, which took power in 2001 on a law-and-order platform and vows to rid Copenhagen of Christiania. Of the many threats to Christiania over the years -- the Danish supreme court declared the place illegal in 1978 -- none has been delivered with such gusto and taken with such seriousness.

By next summer, parliament is expected to vote on a final redevelopment plan for Christiania, which is technically under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense and happens to sit on 80 acres of prime waterfront real estate. If adopted, the plan would change Christiania gradually, leaving some illegal houses alone and knocking down others, building roads and leaving no trace of Pusher Street, whose hash stalls are the biggest thorns in the sides of the Conservatives.

On Pusher Street, only two rules are enforced: no hard drugs and no photographs. The dealers are free to sell, mostly because the police seldom walk into Christiania for fear of being pelted by rocks and bottles. When they do venture in, they come with 100 officers in riot gear and equipped with tear gas. There have been no raids at all this year, despite police suspicions that the hash trade is controlled by organized crime.

"Selling hash is against the law," said Helge Adam Moller, a Conservative member of Parliament and head of its defense committee.

"If it were going on any other place, even in my own town square, it would take 1 1/2 minutes for the police to be there. And here it is happening 1 1/2 kilometers from the Royal Palace. You can sell it and nothing happens. It is unacceptable."

Christiania's residents beg to disagree, and have decided -- after countless meetings -- to shed their socialist ideals and embrace one of capitalism's most powerful weapons: the lawyer.

These residents of Christiania, which houses 750 adults and 200 children, even agree that the place was once too wild and violent, with too many hard drugs, too many ramshackle houses and too many freeloaders. But that, they say, has now changed, making the government's crackdown all the more senseless.

In some ways, there is even less freedom in Christiania than in Denmark proper. With 14 neighborhood groups, and a consensus decree needed for every decision, Christiania sometimes seems like an out-of-control condo association.

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