Beneath tranquil Swiss scene, root causes of youth revolt lie unsolved
The bankers in their gray suits who passed it on the way to work called it an ''eyesore,'' a ''scandal,'' a ''hotbed of vandalism and drug abuse.''Skip to next paragraph
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But the youths who fought for it through 18 months of street riots say it was a source of escape from the consumer society, a symbol of ''autonomy.''
It used to be a run-down, empty factory on the Limmatstrasse, behind Zurich's railway station, until, on April 3, 1981, after some of the worst rioting in Switzerland since the 1930s it was given over to the youths by a reluctant city council to serve as an ''autonomous youth center.''
Then, one year later, it came to a sudden and ignominious end. In the early hours of March 23, 1982 it was bulldozed to the ground by city workmen, protected by a posse of armed police.
Throughout the last two bewildering years, the inhabitants of Switzerland's business and banking capital, have followed the fortunes of the now defunct youth center with a kind of horrified fascination.
By any normal standards, their city is a success. Zurich has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent. Old buildings are being pulled down and converted at a frantic pace to keep up with the inflow of new investment even as the rest of Europe is caught in a demoralizing recession. Zurich, like Switzerland as a whole, presents a confident, affluent face to the world.
But the last two years have uncovered a deep vein of dissatisfaction among the city's youth. Riots have caused damage of over 10 million francs; more than 3,800 people have been arrested; 120 policemen, and over 200 youths have been injured; five youngsters have been blinded by rubber bullets.
These are, all agree, extremely high statistics for a law-abiding city that boasted only seven murders in 1980.
With the center gone, the nightmare has been pushed into the background, and life has returned to normal - at least on the surface. Summer has arrived, and with it the cafe tables are out on the sidewalk; the picturesque Limmat River, which runs through the city center, is swollen from the last snows melting in the Alps; the flower beds and lawns along its bank are being tended with typical Swiss precision.
Behind this tranquil exterior, however, lies an uneasy mood. It is common to see youths exchanging heroin on the well-tended lawns. Graffiti shout out from medieval alleyways. (The favorite is a capital letter ''A,'' usually painted black or red and enclosed in a circle. It stands for ''autonomy,'' but it also smacks of ''anarchy.'') Along the Limmatquai, one of Zurich's tourist attractions, some of the windows of shops and jewelry stores are still cracked.
To the relief of many, there have been no more riots since the Limmatstrasse center was leveled. The only incident so far this summer was a fire that gutted a McDonald's restaurant July 5. Nobody was hurt.
Social workers warn that the root causes remain explosive, and that youths could take to the streets again during the summer - particularly if the new city council, which was recently elected on a law-and-order platform, continues to take a tough line by banning marches and mounting a massive show of force at the first sign of trouble.
''The mood is awful,'' says Andre Eisenstein, who gave up a well-paying job in a computer firm to coordinate relations between the Limmatstrasse center and church groups.
''I've heard of guns being bought, and ammunition,'' he says. ''There's been an unexplained increase in acts of arson. I'm worried.''
The troubles first began on May 30, 1980, after the former city council members voted to spend 60 million francs to renovate the city opera house. Opera was already subsidized to the tune of 88 francs a seat.
''Alternative youth culture,'' like pop concerts, received less than 300,000 francs a year in the city budget. Youths went into the streets to protest and were met with rubber bullets and water cannons. Thereafter, violent clashes were almost weekly events. At their height, 10,000 youths would participate in massive cavalcades that snaked through the city, leaving windows broken and monuments daubed with graffiti such as: ''freedom from ice,'' ''stones grow wings,'' ''we wish you a hot summer - this year, next year - up to 2009 A. D.''