From Thu Jan 18 12:03:22 2001
Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2001 23:14:38 -0600 (CST)
Organization: The Soylent Green Party
From: “Clore Daniel C” <>
Subject: [smygo] Italy's Cultural Underground Endures (Social Centers)
Article: 113157
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

News for Anarchists & Activists:

Italy's Cultural Underground Endures

By Adam Bregman, Los Angeles Times, Monday 15 January 2001

Though it may be hard to imagine in America, in Italy, communists, anarchists, ravers, punks, hackers and artists have seized vast, abandoned factories and forts and boarded-up schools and churches and transformed them into cinemas, concert halls, bars, squats and art galleries. Far from being decrepit pits, Italy's social centers are among the country's most vital cultural institutions. The French newspaper Le Monde, in a story about the phenomenon, has even called them “the Italian cultural jewel.”

Scattered, sometimes even hidden, around the country, Italy's estimated 150 social centers are governed by a basic philosophy: Anything goes. They were created as free spaces, autonomous zones free of government interference where folks should feel free to indulge in whatever they like, a stark contrast to the extreme regulation of most American social gathering places. 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, and the only alternative to expensive discos.

“Social centers are supposed to be open to any form of expression,” says Andrea Borgioli, a Bologna university student with dyed black hair and shaved eyebrows who digs Marilyn Manson and Korn and says he can’t find anyone who will rent him an apartment 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.

“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.”

The social center movement was mostly given form by communists. (In Italy that term covers a lot of political terrain, from jargon-spouting Marxist-Leninists to a major political party that most closely resembles the Democratic Party, even while using as its symbol the hammer and sickle.)

While Milan has approximately 19 active social centers and Rome about 27, social centers exist across the whole of Italy in towns such as Verona, Bergamo, Arezzo, Alessandria, Ravenna and Asti.

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

Because of their roots, social centers are supposed to be nonprofit, anti-capitalist entities. This means that most social centers use profits from events to pay their minimal expenses or to help comrades who have been arrested. At most social centers, entry to a concert or rave is $3, beer or drinks cost maybe $1, and food is probably free.

Though usually tolerated, social centers are technically illegal in Italy and so they are often scattered on the edges of town. Last winter, I spent many hours trying to locate social centers by foot and by car.

Thriving on the City's Fringes

One evening in Florence, I circled around Parco delle Cascine, a huge, scary park that seemed to be populated mostly by Brazilian transvestite hookers. I was searching for L’Indiano, a social center that is the hub of the local techno-house music scene, but was not able to find it.

In Genoa, I walked across half the length of the city, through dark, snakelike streets, only to discover that my destination, the social center Zapata, was on top of a mountain and unreachable on foot. On a particularly unsuccessful night in Turin, I walked miles to Prinz Eugen (a center known for producing excellent books), where occupants turned off the light and pretended they weren’t there when I knocked.

On the other side of town, at Asilo Occupato, I was greeted by a mustachioed French guy in a turtleneck and two Mohawked guys, one immediately antagonistic, who told me they didn’t, as a policy, speak with journalists. The mustachioed fellow told me I could come back the next day and there might be someone who lived there who would talk to me, but probably not, and that in general, Turin's squatters would not speak with journalists. In fact, these were the only unfriendly social center folks I met.

The next day I hopped on a tram, which dropped me off in the south of the city at the doorstep of Turin's renowned anarchist social center El Paso, which is housed in an 18th century villa and has been around for 12 years. A little nervous about knocking on the door, I hung out by the back door next to a 20-foot-tall metal monster made from mufflers and scooter parts. Soon, a young Spanish woman emerged from the door and invited me inside, and a fellow who spoke a little English and had lived there since it was established gave me a tour.

The interior was magnificent. There was a handmade metal fireplace, a concert hall where a bunch of big-name acts had played, a loft with a pool table and an info shop packed with anarchist propaganda, records, videos and porn magazines.

Outside, there was a garden with a homemade swing, and the frontyard was piled with salvaged metal, old signs and 50 giant wooden doors. The bathroom next to the bar was a folk art masterpiece. It had gorgeous iron lamps made from pipes and a stone sink, and was covered with colorful, intricate, Gaudi-like tiling.

In Lucca, an attractive Tuscan town situated behind towering medieval walls, I found a recently opened center, Ex-Safill, housed in an old aluminum factory. It was run by a group of young radicals who had been kicked out of three other locations in several months. Their main activities include conferences on the usual social center topics—Chiapas, Kurdistan, the Palestinians, the WTO protests in Seattle and, of course, Mumia Abu-Jamal—and raves and reggae concerts that have drawn up to 500 people.

Illegal Status Makes for Precarious Existence

Lorenzo Costa, a literature student who lives in the hilly countryside just outside of Siena, has spent most of his college years deeply involved with the social center movement in Bologna. He explained 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,” Costa said. “For the first month we’d sleep inside, because you don’t know if the police are going to throw you out. One time we occupied this very beautiful place that had been a monastery and a school and it had been closed for 12 years. We had a guy who went around to radio stations reading this document explaining why we had occupied this 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 then it eventually fell apart because of the problems with the police and the great divisions we had in the city between various groups.”

Police in Italy generally show restraint when it comes to social centers. But not always. “Sometimes, they would just break down the door and actually just break everything they find inside,” Costa said.

Although the number of Italy's social centers continues to grow, the scene is changing. Some, such as Link, in Bologna, have strayed from the founding philosophy. For starters, the facility was offered up by the town's mayor, said Costa. “Artistically, it's quite interesting,” he said. “In all Europe it is known and as far as music and video, it's done very well. But even though they try to remain in contact with the movement, everyone knows it is not a social center.” Link, which has a tainted reputation among social center purists, charges a relatively whopping $8 for concerts and raves.

Another famous social center, CPA in Florence, is in danger of being bulldozed for a shopping mall. A former factory that has been squatted for 11 years and that contains a large concert hall, a movie house, a sound stage, a skate park, a gym, a basketball court and a darkroom, CPA will be replaced by a Coop, a large supermarket chain started by the former Communist Party. The politically active punks who run CPA (and publish a monthly newspaper, Communicazione Antagonista) plan to fight the eviction.

Though there is nothing quite like them in the world, Italy's social centers see few foreign visitors. They’re worth finding, though, for the chance to see some real democracy in action.