Activist Squats: “the Italian Cultural Jewel.”

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."

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 has even called them "the Italian cultural jewel."

Scattered, sometimes even hidden, around the country, Italy’s estimated 150 social centers 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 social centers provide an ideal hangout, and alternative to expensive discos.

"Social centers are supposed to be open to any form of expression," says Andrea Borgioli, a Bologna university student. "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.)

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. 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.

Author: Adam Bregman

News Service: LA Times

URL: http://www.latimes.com/living/20010114/t000004068.html