City Balances Old Ways, Tough New Realities

Widespread drug scourge viewed side by side with Zurich's marvelous wealth and order yields a sharp contrast

SOME 150 years ago the people of Zurich tore down the city's medieval walls, opened up foreign trade, and quickly established the city as one of the leading financial centers of Europe. Today, it is having second thoughts about openness.

The city that welcomed political refugees like Lenin and critics of the Nazi regime now feels overwhelmed by foreigners. Everyone here talks about it.

"It's less the problem of the absolute numbers than it is the growth rate," says Daniel Hefti, head of economics for the Federation of Swiss Employees' Organization located here. He pulls out a chart of statistics. In 1980, foreigners made up 21 percent of Switzerland's population. Last year, it reached 27 percent.

The official numbers do not count refugees fleeing war in the former Yugoslavia or economic hardship in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Many come to Switzerland asking for asylum.

"If we opened up our country to economic refugees, it would become a country of 10 million," exclaims Christian Kauter, secretary-general of the largest political party in Switzerland, home to 6.6 million people. And "we have more and more of these refugees who are leading the drug trade." Mr. Kauter's party has introduced a bill that would automatically eject asylum seekers who are caught in criminal activity.

The problem is especially acute in Zurich. As the capital of the most populous and one of the richest cantons in Switzerland, Zurich acts as a powerful magnet. Even though it has lost a fifth of its population since 1960, the city retains a good system of social services - so good, in fact, that the city attracts the homeless, addicts, and other problem groups.

Drugs are the biggest concern. During the 1980s, the city's Socialist-Green coalition adopted a lax policy toward drug use. Platzspitz Park, behind the Swiss National Museum, became a hangout - not only for the youth of Zurich but also for hundreds of users and dealers from outside the city. It became known as "Needle Park." When Zurich police conducted a surprise raid in June, they found that less than a fifth of the 931 people it picked up were city residents.

"At the beginning of the century, we took in 1 million people," says Jorg Eggenschwiler, head of the information office for the city government's executive department. "And Switzerland benefited a lot from them. They founded many of our companies."

Some of today's newcomers are different, he argues. "They are criminals, but under the guise of political refugees."

This is not the first time that newcomers have created problems in Zurich. Even glossy picture books about the city refer to past turbulence.

"If it were still the custom to erect monuments, Zurich might do well to dedicate one to the tutelary genius that has repeatedly sent so quiet a city such turbulent guests," says the 1979 photo album "Zurich: Metropolis on the Limmat." "Most of them were not officially invited: They came on their own initiative, often as refugees driven by hard necessity, and they continually called in question the articles of Zurich's official credo. It must be said in Zurich's favour that most of the strangers who sett led here soon felt at home and that the city has served as a sanctuary for emigrants from all points of the compass. On the other hand, it would probably never have ranked with the world's great cities if it had not opened its gates again and again to uninvited guests from far and near."

IT is not clear how much longer Zurich can keep up the tradition. The influx is straining the city's social services and has hurt its image.

"In the city of Zurich, we always had problems, but they were problems for which we had the instruments," says Ralph Kuhne, secretary-general of the mayor's office. "Now we have problems that are important and we don't have the instruments and the power to handle them."

The city has taken some steps to curb its drug problem. In July 1990, it announced a new drug program. It cracked down on dealers and users and, early last year, closed the so-called "Needle Park." Today Platzspitz seems restful enough. A small fountain splashes a stream of water among tall trees. The Sihl and Limmat rivers flow by on either side. But the footbridges at the tip of the park are permanently blocked off. The gates of Platzspitz are locked. A small sign says the park is only open for a few h ours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Closing the park did not solve the problem. Addicts and dealers moved down river into the industrial neighborhoods, inhabitants of which complained loudly. Now a new area is emerging just a few hundred yards from the original "Needle Park." A walk through that area is a descent into a dark corner of Zurich.

Although some drug dealing takes place along the street that borders the Limmat, the heart of the action is a footbridge that crosses the river. A man walks by pushing a shopping cart. A young blonde jumps out of a silver Mercedes and, as the driver pulls away, runs into the mass of young humanity on the bridge.

There, one almost has to push one's way through.

"What you want?"

"You speak English?"

The dealers try to pull newcomers into tight-knit groups.

"Sugar?" "Cola?" they call out. One young woman advertises "Super-Cola!"

It is almost like a hectic street market, except the goods for sale are clear liquids and whitish powders in tiny plastic bags.

Near the end of the bridge, a woman stoops over a young man who lies unconscious on the ground. On the other side, a group tends to another user in a similar state. Neither responds to the attention.

When the bridge ends, the dealers fall away and the path opens up to railroad tracks fenced off at one end. Users hang out here. The ground is nearly invisible under the detritus of cigarette packs and empty food containers. People kneel and flex their arms to inject themselves. A few use mirrors to aim their noses over powders. Others have overturned plastic crates where they lay out spoons to mix their drugs.

It is strangely quiet here, intense, as though self-absorption could somehow mimic piety. Are there 200 people here? 500? They are so spread out along the tracks it is hard to tell. If they notice a passing stranger, they offer no comment.

Zurichers may want to blame this activity on outsiders from the Middle East or North Africa. But fair-skinned Europeans are the overwhelming majority here. Of the 931 netted in the surprise police raid, all but 21 were from Switzerland. It is hard to estimate the average age here because drugs change a person's appearance. My guess: 22 years old.

To leave this place, one ascends a shrub-lined walkway. It is isolated; it seems endless. At the top, where the quiet gradually gives way to the sounds of passing traffic, someone has printed on an elevated walkway: "Welcome to Babylon."

Zurich is certainly wealthy enough but probably too orderly to be a modern-day Babylon. The streets are clean and the traffic disciplined. The street cars follow strict schedules.

Less than a mile from the drug area, tourists from around the world move through the old part of the city to see the Stadthaus (City Hall) or the 12th-century Fraumunster church next door with stained glass windows by Marc Chagall.

Bahnhofstrasse (Station Street), which Baedeker's Travel Guide calls "one of the most attractive streets in Europe for shopping," glitters with jewelry from Cartier, clothing by Ungaro, Hermes accessories, and, of course, the watches that have made the country famous. No addicts or panhandlers here.

The elegance of Zurich is matched by the price tags. The cost of living here is one of the highest in the world. A bratwurst and soft drink costs $4.75 on the street. A two-mile cab ride from downtown can run $12. Depending on how one calculates, Switzerland has the highest-paid workers in the industrialized world. Even with the higher prices they pay, they just edge out Americans to take the top spot. In 1990, the latest figures available from the United Nations, the average worker in Switzerland made $ 21,690 versus $21,360 in the US. In Zurich itself, incomes are even higher.

What's striking is that these two worlds - high fashion and addiction - can coexist without touching each other. The city's image, though, has suffered.

"This scares the tourists," Mr. Kuhne says of the publicity. "They think it's everywhere."

The city has tried various solutions besides a crackdown. To diminish the risk of AIDS, it allows users to trade in their old needles. Currently, it hands out some 12,000 needles a day.

In July, Zurich announced a new three-year experiment to try to wean addicts off drugs. It will offer 50 drug-dependent men and women government-subsidized heroin and cocaine as well as therapy sessions to stabilize them and, it is hoped, free them from their habit. The program - part of a national, three-year study - will start in Zurich no later than next January. City officials admit it is only a drop in the bucket. "What do you do? Everyone comes," Mr. Eggenschwiler says. "The prices have come down b ecause there are more drug dealers.... You have to help them [the addicts], but the more you help them, the more you have."

If drug activity has intensified concern about outsiders, Zurich in other ways retains its old habits.

Concerned about strains between French- and German-speaking Swiss, one newspaper organized a festival to bring together the two cultures. It chose Zurich to host this "Rostifest," even though the city is firmly rooted in the German-speaking part of the country.

The name "Rostifest" is significant. Rosti is a noted regional dish of skillet-fried shredded potatoes with ham and onions. It comes from German-speaking Switzerland. When French-speaking Swiss want to talk about the border between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland, they often refer to "la barriere de rosti" or the rosti barrier.

So one July night here near Lake Zurich, the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger gave away free rosti and wine and mineral water (from the French-speaking part) to anyone who came in. Diners could listen to Swiss groups play traditional music.

"We sense that there is tension," says Christine Niggeler, the piano player for a group, "Carrotes Sauvages" (Wild Carrots) from French-speaking Lausanne. "This festival is to try to start a reconciliation."

IS the split between French- and German-speakers that serious?

"It's serious - yes and no," says Diego Abriel, one of the group's hurdy-gurdy players. He tells a joke about God making Switzerland - first the lakes, then the mountains. Finally God added the Swiss people because "otherwise, it would be too perfect."

"You can say what you want," Ms. Niggeler retorts, "Switzerland remains Swiss."

At other times in their history, the Swiss have, to their credit, reached the same conclusion. In the late 15th century, St. Nicholas of Flue allegedly intervened in a confrontation between cantons, which strengthened the confederation. In 1914, at a time when French-speakers and German-speakers were at loggerheads over whether to support warlike Germany, Swiss poet Carl Spitteler published an important tract that emphasized the primacy of Swiss values over pro-German leanings. The country stayed out of the war. Although opposed to Hitler in World War II, Switzerland again sat out the war.

"Switzerland was so long the exception," Eggenschwiler sighs. But "there are no more exceptions. It balances out."

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