Social Centers, Community Spaces, and Squats

From "Italy's Cultural Underground"
by Adam Bregman

Though it may be hard to imagine in America, in Italy, communists, anarchists, ravers, punks, hackers and artists have seized vast, abandoned factories, forts, boarded-up schools and churches and transformed them into cinemas, concert halls, bars, squats and art galleries. Far from being scabies-infested scum pits with gutter punks spray-painting the names of their favorite bands on the walls, Italy’s social centers are among the country’s most vital cultural institutions.

Some are draped with spectacular works of art, while others provide shelter and services for new immigrants. For many young people, especially in small and medium-sized towns, social centers provide an ideal hangout, which is the only alternative to expensive, sleazy discos.

The movement began in 1975 when some radical communists snuck into a dilapidated building in a poor neighborhood of Milan, cleaned the place up and issued a manifesto stating what they hoped to accomplish. The neighborhood lacked a preschool, kindergarten, library, vocational school, medical clinic and spaces for organizing meetings and concerts. They invited city officials and the local population to their social center, called Leoncavallo, where they eventually opened a carpentry workshop, a sewing school, a theater and other facilities. Leoncavallo, Italy’s first and most famous social center, has been shut down and forced to move locations several times. Today it is a giant structure covered with magnificent graffiti, containing a concert room, a disco, a skateboard ramp, a documentation center to help immigrants and several bars. The folks who run it are into hip-hop (which is still yet to hit it big in Italy) and Public Enemy chose to play there recently rather than a traditional concert venue.

During the ’80s, the social center movement was spurred by punk rock and in the ’90s the rave scene was a prominent influence. Currently, Italy has approximately 150 social centers, but there is a basic philosophy that governs almost all of them.

“Social centers are supposed to be open to any form of expression,” says Andrea Borgioli, a university student with dyed black hair and shaved eyebrows who digs Marilyn Manson and Korn and can’t find anyone who will rent him an apartment in Bologna because of how he looks. “Like if I wanted to do an exhibition somewhere else, I would need lots of money, but I could go to a social center and they would let me do it for free and anyone can go there and do whatever kind of art they want.”

Unlike anything else in Italy, social centers are also supposed to be open all the time to provide a refuge for anyone who needs a place to sleep or just somewhere to go, though often they are closed for security reasons or because no one is around. Distinct from practically any other place one would go to have fun, social centers are nonprofit, anti-capitalist entities. The social center movement was mostly given form by communists. (Communists in Italy range from your typical jargon-spouting Marxist-Leninists to what most of the world would more accurately call socialists, and from a major political party that still uses the hammer and sickle as its symbol -- but more closely resembles the United States’ Democratic Party -- to young, radical communists who occupy buildings and create social centers.) Their anti-capitalist tradition means that most social centers use any profits from events to pay their minimal expenses or to help their comrades who have been arrested. At most social centers, entry to a concert or rave is $3, beer or drinks, maybe $1 and food, probably free.

Social centers are free autonomous zones where the government and police have no jurisdiction and where folks should feel free to indulge in whatever they like, a stark contrast to the hundreds of ridiculous laws that apply to any sort of entertainment-related business in America.

“Inside you can use drugs, but not sell them,” says Borgioli, “which is not because of problems with the police or for the safety of the social center, but for social, idealistic reasons, because they don’t want someone to get rich selling drugs to everyone and exploiting people. At the same time, they want people to be free to do what they want.” This freedom means that at many of the smaller social centers, almost any band can set up its own gigs. Also, travelers can usually find a free place to crash.


Lorenzo Costa spent most of his college years deeply involved with the social center movement in Bologna. Somewhat of an expert on the subject, Costa explained to me how difficult it is for many social centers to survive.

“When we wanted to open a social center, we would look for places that are closed down and often places that were owned by the city. For the first month we’d sleep inside, because you don’t know if the police are going to throw you out. Sometimes, you’d get thrown out the next day. One time we occupied this very beautiful place that had been a monastery and a school and had been closed for 12 years. We had a guy who went around to radio stations reading a document explaining why we had occupied the place and inviting people to come down. A few hours later, we had 200 people. This was a real nice period where there was a real movement, but it eventually fell apart because of problems with the police and divisions in the city between various groups.”


However, Italy’s social centers, which the French newspaper Le Monde called “the Italian cultural jewel,” continue to expand. Though many European countries have squatters’ movements and some left-leaning governments are tolerant of them, only Germany’s squats, which are not nearly as abundant or diverse, in any way compare to the scene in Italy. Of course, in the U.S. there is no such movement to speak of. There have been squatters’ movements on the East Coast in New York and Philadelphia, but they have been invariably smashed to pieces by the police. Is America tolerant enough to ever let young people have control of public space to do with what they wish? Probably not. But before that ever happens, there will have to be a consensus among young people that they want to have control over their own lives and their own hangouts. And there will have to be an organized movement to achieve those goals.

Until then, go to Italy and check out some real democracy.

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