Centri Sociali or Occupied Social Centres flourished during the 1980s and 1990s in Italy. Born out of the squatter and Autonomia movements, they are self-organised spaces which have become centres for urban counter-culture and for a radical critique of representative democracy. Set up as autonomous spaces the centres are run cooperatively and often experiment with collective forms of decision making.
The occupied buildings are usually located in the suburbs of large Italian cities and they provide spaces for collective living and a myriad of cultural, social and political activities. Established in response to increasing gentrification and a lack of affordable housing, the squatted centres provide a space that is liberated from capitalist modes of production but is also highly precarious; some centres have a semi-legal status, whilst others are regularly closed down by the authorities.
There is no clear set of activities that occur in the Centri Sociali; some have community services such as Italian language courses for migrants, drugs counselling or day centres for older people, whilst others are centres for a wide variety of political campaigns, including criminal justice reform, migrant rights and anti-racism. They are also cultural spaces, being the foci of the Italian hip hop scene and other types of underground music, as well as hosting exhibitions, theatre, radio broadcasts and producing alternative publications. Members of Centri Sociali usually participate in a number of loose networks and activities and whilst the number of centres has declined recently, they are still regarded as centres of activism and laboratories for cultural and political experimentation. Since the early 2000s right-wing social centres have also developed, highlighting the fact that self-organised processes in themselves are not emancipatory, and are not the exclusive territory of the left, but are characterised instead by the political affiliations of those involved.
One of the longest running social centres is the Centro Sociale Leoncavallo in Milan, which was created in 1975 through the squatting of an abandoned factory located in an area of social housing, where radical left groups came together to make a self-managed space that was organised without internal hierarchies. The aim for the centre was to provide a collective space for the community and as such it incorporated a number of services, such as nurseries, counselling, exhibition spaces and communal meeting rooms. The fortunes of Leoncavallo have changed over the years but it has now achieved legal status with some inevitable forms of institutionalisation.
Adam Bregman, 'Italy's Cultural Underground Endures', http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/62/248.html [accessed 4 March 2010].
Andrea Membretti, 'Centro Sociale Leoncavallo: The Social Construction of a Public Space of Proximity', republicart.net, 2003, http://www.republicart.net/disc/realpublicspaces/membretti01_en.htm [accessed 4 March 2010].
---, 'Centro Sociale Leoncavallo: Building Citizenship as an Innovative Service', European Urban and Regional Studies, 14 (2007), 252-263.
Martin Parker, Valérie Fournier and Patrick Reedy, The Dictionary of Alternatives: Utopianism and Organisation (London: Zed Books, 2007).
Vincenzo Ruggiero, 'New social movements and the 'centri sociali' in Milan', The Sociological Review, 48 (2000), 167-185.
Steve Wright, 'A Window Onto Italy's Social Centres [Articles and Interview]', Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture and Action, 1 (2007), 12-20; http://journals.sfu.ca/affinities/index.php/affinities/article/view/4/46
"All of a sudden, we were inside, "running" the place-we who had
never managed anything except our unemployment, our homelessness,
our own little patch, our streets. And it was precisely the problem
of management which soon forced upon us a debate which if
experimental, contradictory and at times even boring, was
nonetheless very important. In this way the management assembly was
set up, because we felt ourselves to be a committee, or a
collective, with our own identity to claim and advance. But an open
structure, not reducible to this or that political area; also
because we believe, then as now, both in the valorisation of
diversity, and a trajectory of liberation outside monolithic
structures and party lobbies.'"
- Alba Solaro; http://journals.sfu.ca/affinities/index.php/affinities/article/view/4/46
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