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Social centers are community spaces. They are buildings which are used for a range of disparate activities, which can be linked only by virtue of being not-for-profit. They might be organizing centers for local activities or they might provide support networks for minority groups such as prisoners and refugees. Often they provide a base for initiatives such as cafes, free shops, public computer labs, graffiti murals, legal collectives and free housing for travellers. The services are determined by both the needs of the community in which the social center is based and the skills which the participants have to offer.
Social centers tend to be in large buildings and thus can host activist meetings, concerts, bookshops, dance performances and art exhibitions. Social centres are common in many European cities, sometimes in squats, sometimes in rented buildings.
Social centres provide a place to socialise in a bar, cafe or music venue. They also provide access to alternative, hard to access information through projects such as libraries, infoshops, film nights and talks.
The projects are usually run on an entirely voluntary basis by the people involved, who are neither charity workers nor social workers. The projects are run in the spirit of co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid. Other activities organised include events, meetings, exhibitions, classes and workshops on a range of topics.
Whilst every individual case is different, most centres are run on the basis of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making. Most centres lean to the left politically, including anarchist, autonomist or communist viewpoints. Centres tend to adopt an ethical vegan philosophy, whilst accepting that individuals involved may have differing personal lifestyles. Individual are often artivists.
"Social centres are abandoned buildings - warehouses, factories, military forts, schools - that have been occupied by squatters and transformed into cultural and political hubs, explicitly free from both the market, and from state control... Though it may be hard to tell at first, the social centres aren't ghettos, they are windows â€” not only into another way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new politics of engagement. And yes, it's something that may be beautiful." (Klein, 2001).
Social Centres are distinguished from community centres in the particular relationship social centres have toward the state and governmental institutions. While "community centre" is a term used to describe any center of "public" activity, occasionally sanctioned by the state or private interests such as a corporation, social centres are characterized by their quasi-legal and sometimes illegal existence, their direct subsistence on the community that supports it and their political vision vis-a-vis the state.
The social centre concept has taken root most successfully in Italy, beginning in the 1970s. Large factories and even abandoned military barracks have been "appropriated" for use as social centers. There are today dozens of social centers in Italy, often denoted by the initials CSOA (Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito). Examples include Pedro in Padova, Spartaco in Ravenna, Officina 99 in Naples and Forte Prenestino, Corto Circuito and Villagio Globale in Rome, Leoncavallo in Milan and CPA Centro Popolare Autogestito Firenze Sud in Florence.
The historic relationship between the Italian social centers and the Autonomia movement (specifically Lotta Continua) has been described briefly in Storming Heaven, Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomous Marxism, by Steve Wright.
Social centres in Italy continue to be centres of political/social dissent. Notoriously the Tute Bianche and Ya Basta Association developed directly out of the social center movement, and many social forums take place in social centers. They are also used for hacklabs, activist copyleft centers (for example, LOA Hacklab in Milan).
From early years of 2000s, several fascist social centers have emerged, such as Casa Pound, social center dedicated to Ezra Pound, which was associated with Tricolour Flame. Now CasaPound has his own movement, CasaPound Italia, extended all over the Italian territory with many social centers and circles.
Since the Sixties there is a long and continuous tradition of squatted social centres in the Netherlands, particularly in the capital, Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, the ASCII centre has been providing free internet to all its 'customers' since 1997 and is now mutating into a hacklab. The Overtoom301 squat has a cafe, a non-profit printshop and a music venue. Vrankrijk is open seven days a week, hosting a range of projects including a kraakspreekuur (squatters' advice hour), a bar, a queer night and benefit events. The Occii is a busy music venue and children's theatre.
In Barcelona, there is a tight network of squatted social centres which publishes a weekly newspaper InfoUsurpa detailing activities and news. The paper is fly-posted on the doors of the squats themselves. As a result of the relaxed attitude of shop-owners towards dumpster diving there are free food cafes every night, often vegan. Other squats offer free music or free internet. The Eskalera Karakola is a feminist social center in Madrid.
The UK Social Centre Network aims to link up "the growing number of autonomous spaces to share resources, ideas and information" . This network draws a very clear distinction between the many autonomous social centres around the country on one side and the state or large NGO-sponsored community centres on the other. Despite there being a tradition of large squats, the recent upsurge in social centres has come about in the last five years. Antecedents of the social center concept include projects such as the Centro Iberico and the Wapping Autonomy Centre.
In London, places include the RampART social centre (currently under threat), the London Action Resource Centre, the Freedom Club and the 56a Crampton Street infoshop. 'The Square' was active during 2006 and is now closed . On January 20, 2007, a new social centre opened in London, in the old Vortex Jazz Club on Stoke Newington Church Street. It continued the ideals of the free space project, and ran a cafe, cinema nights and benefits. It was evicted in March 2007. A new space opened up in Camberwell in March 2007 and was evicted in August.
Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, there are centres in Oxford (the OARC), Leeds (the Common Place) , Bristol (Kebele), Nottingham (Sumac Centre), Bradford (The 1 in 12 Club), Manchester (the Basement), Brighton (the Cowley Club), Birmingham (the Social Justice Centre Justice not crisis), Cardiff (The PAD), Liverpool (Next To Nowhere) and Edinburgh (The Forest). Belfast's social centre, Giros, has now closed as has Sheffield's Matilda.
Many social centres are squats, and as such have a very short life span.
Some places have a good social center network, but are not so good at communicating outside of that network. They focus more on local solidarity and being effective in their communities rather than sharing ideas. For example Nosotros in Greece. Others network and have a wider range of international connections and networking. For example Hirvitalo in Finland.
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