#08 – SELF-RUN COMMUNITY CENTERS IN ITALY
(DISCLAIMER: The following is NOT intended as an exhaustive explanation of the phenomenon—I’m mainly describing my limited experience.)
One of the elements that were new—and unexpected—for me when I moved to Italy were the centri sociali autogestiti, self-run community centers; I mean that in my ignorance I hadn’t expected to find any such activity in Italy. A simplified description could be ‘an activist group occupying an abandoned building/facility and organizing (political) community activity in and from it’, but in reality the scene is more complex and extensive with plenty of nuances.¹
(Until moving to Italy, I had been somewhat familiar with squatting that generally is mostly connected to housing; many years ago in Helsinki, I saw the start of Oranssi, an organization that still is active with their both housing related activity as well as cultural activities.)
In Italy, the roots of the centri sociali autogestiti (CSA) or centri sociali occupati autogestiti (CSOA)—depending on whether the space has been legally assigned or occupied—as intended in this post, go back to the 1970s. In those years, the centers were in many cases quite local, closely connected to the neighborhood they were in (typically in more disadvantaged ones), and besides offering a place to gather, they also were providing support and resources locally. Over the years, the culture offering grew, and the centers established themselves also as places for enjoying “alternative culture”, eg. in the 80s the punk movement was active. (Often these community centers are understood to be politically on the left, but also right-wing ones exist.)
Given that these community centers are self-run, they are also self-financed (as everywhere, I guess, not only in Italy). The “personnel” usually consists of volunteers, and the funding comes from activities such as a bar and restaurant, concerts and other events (theater, fairs, etc.), courses and workshops, and some centers may have for example a bookstore in the premises. I believe that my first visit ever in a such community center was when my flatmates one evening took me to eat at Bligny 18 in Turin (where I lived my first years in Italy). I remember a large and very noisy space that reminded me of a school canteen (the place may have been an old school); cheap food and wine in plastic plates and cups. Subsequently I also visited CSOA Askatasuna when my friend Carlo’s band was playing there (trying also to photograph them—with a film camera—but can’t really say that I excelled). Only later I learned about the political activities of these places; while my flatmates were interested in politics to a certain extent, they never actively participated in any such activities of any CSAs. In 2003, when the war in Iraq started, the university gave permission to discuss the situation at the lectures, and I remember a small activist delegation from Askatasuna showing up in the classroom to encourage everyone to take action and to express contrariety against the invasion. I also remember visiting a freshly occupied apartment building—good old squatting—where also families with children had started moving in, and they had all kind of future projects planned, but if I remember correctly they were all evicted quite soon.
When I moved to Milan in 2008, I started to see community center activities closer, and understand them better, too. Milan has one of the most famous and oldest community centers in Italy, Leoncavallo. Opened in 1975, the center takes its name from the street it used to be located in until 1989, when the place was emptied in a massive (and aggressive) police operation and partially demolished immediately after that; the event made national headlines and was broadcast on TV too. During the following years, Leoncavallo’s activists also had another building assigned to them, but in 1994 they occupied an old printing facility where the center has been ever since—still not legally (but trying to negotiate with the authorities to obtain a legal status), and constantly under eviction order, but apparently even the authorities don’t want to repeat the 1989 operation.
(A related anecdote: Regularly, the lawyers of the actual owner of the facility conduct a preannounced visit with a bailiff at the center in order to carry out eviction, and every time Leoncavallo’s representatives refuse to be evicted. Documents are signed and the lawyers and the bailiff leave, and the visit is repeated after few months. At the first such “eviction” that I attended—I would see few more over the years—someone had brought the morning paper; while we were still waiting for the lawyers and the bailiff to arrive for the appointment, we read on the newspaper that the eviction had been “avoided without clashes”.)
I learned about Leoncavallo because my then flatmate was volunteering there once a week teaching Italian to foreigners for free and especially to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to "normal" classes because they are unable to obtain documents that are often required, like an Italian ID, residence permit, etc.
Leoncavallo’s school is part of a wider network of similar schools, “Scuole senza permesso” (“Schools without permit”). I asked if I could start photographing the school activity, which was a completely new thing to me; back then, I only had started to understand better the scale and nature of the immigration situation in the Southern Europe as well as the amount of volunteering in Italy. Coming from Finland, I had expected the government to take care of any integration activities, such as language courses (personally, I’ve actually never taken any Italian classes in Italy; my flatmates in Turin were my local “Italian course”). So I went to Leoncavallo’s weekly assembly to introduce myself and ask for their permission to photograph in the center and its area.
Over the next few years I photographed with irregular regularity some of the activities of the center, including the 2011 local elections campaign, for which a member of the then “core group” of Leoncavallo was chosen as a candidate, representing the now defunct left-wing party SEL (he wasn’t elected, while the party’s main candidate, Giuliano Pisapia, was elected mayor). The facility is vast; it has both upper floors and an underground floor plus an inner yard with separate spaces surrounding it. There are five different halls/rooms for concerts, plays and other shows, all but one with an annexed bar, and there’s also a canteen-like restaurant, a bookstore, a screen printing shop, and several other rooms that are used for eg. language classes, theater courses, rehearsals and so on.
Moreover, while the facility doesn’t have an actual residential area, part of the building used to be reserved as a shelter for hosting homeless people. However, the premises are currently far from perfect for such activity (they need renovation; after all, it’s an industrial facility), and as far as I know, the accommodation activity has been discontinued at least for the moment; and even years ago, the hosting was mainly limited to the winter period as part of the annual “Emergenza freddo” (“Cold Weather Emergency”) initiative of the City of Milan.
Officially, Leoncavallo’s activities are run by a registered nonprofit organization called “Le mamme del Leoncavallo”. The “mothers’ group” was born in 1978 in the wake of well-known murders that had a connection with Leoncavallo (the killings remain unresolved, despite strong evidence). In 1978, two 18-year-old Leoncavallo activists, Fausto Tinelli and Lorenzo “Iaio” Iannucci were shot dead on a street near Leoncavallo; at the time, the young men were investigating on their own the heroin trade in the neighborhood—in that period a really serious problem both in Milan and in entire Italy—and initially it was suspected that the murders were connected to that, but later the investigation pointed also to neofascists (in Italy, the 70s saw plenty of political violence, and the period is called anni di piombo, “years of lead”). The boys' funeral was attended by 100,000 people, and after that few mothers of the neighborhood founded a collective, “Antifascist mothers of Leoncavallo”, primarily seeking justice for the murdered boys, and later engaging in various political and community activities.
Given that today the organization has a more official status and structure, it issues an annual report of its activities and funds and spending, and taxpayers can devolve part of their annual income tax return to it via an Italian system that allows the NPOs to receive financial support this way. (Such official status is something that varies among the community centers; some prefer to remain “outsiders”.) The organization also acted as the “on-paper tenant” when Leoncavallo decided to help a young roma couple with a baby to get an apartment; due to prejudices no-one would rent the couple a house.
Many years ago one of my neighbors at the time, a young man in his twenties, scoffed that “Leoncavallo has become just a place to go out”; apparently in his opinion Leoncavallo wasn’t engaging in activism enough, or he didn’t see value in what the center was doing. Over the years, new generations have shaped the CSAs/CSOAs and founded new ones (my neighbor being active in one, or at least was at the time), with their own ideas about politics and activism—but of course the ideas have always varied. (I also remember one of the activists leaving Leoncavallo and transferring to another CSA because she had started to disagree with Leoncavallo’s activity and politics.) Based on other conversations I’ve had I gather that—be that because of activists’ age or something else—if Leoncavallo’s stance is seen as too “soft”, those considering some other centers not hard enough may then be seen too aggressive by the so called “soft” ones.
Another community center in Milan I’m a bit more familiar with—but basically only as a concert goer, to be honest—is another “historical” one, Cox18; a good place for alternative music. (They probably have the tiniest stage in the city.)
While I agree with many of the goals and activities of many of these community centers, I’ve sometimes wondered something that also some researchers have (but what has vehemently been denied by the “subjects”, i.e. the community centers themselves), that is whether one of the main purposes of the activity is just to spend time together, do things and be active together². In an indirect connection to that, I sometimes remember what the representative of the workers of an Italian factory in the middle of an industrial action said to me; as a reply to the question why the workers wouldn’t want to start running the factory themselves, he said that they prefer to work under an external owner and boss, “so that we have someone to fight against”. He laughed while saying this but I’m not sure if it was a joke; I sometimes wonder if 'being against’ is part of the appeal in being an activist—the need of having ‘us’ and ‘them’ permanently. But I don't wish activism to go anywhere.
More images in this gallery.
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¹ Further reading on self-run community centers, see for example:
• Talamonti, A. (2019), Centri Sociali Autogestiti nella produzione di welfare dal basso. Tre casi di studio
• Bazzoli, N. (2021), I centri sociali autogestiti: spazi e attori di organizzazione politica e culturale
• Membretti, A. (2007), Centro Sociale Leoncavallo. Building Citizenship as an Innovative Service