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Community / Public space

Rome’s volunteer-run community centres were practically made for the pandemic

In one of Italy's most chaotic cities, neighbourhoods have long turned to self-government when institutions fail to protect them.

Marta Autore could never have imagined that she would see Rome, the city of her birth, desolate and motionless. But in March, the young teacher saw Covid-19 effectively silence one of Europe’s most chaotic metropolises.

Delivering groceries during quarantine
Activists deliver groceries as part of the Quarantena Solidale initiative. (Photo by Marco Marchese)

When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the shutdown of the country, Autore didn’t hesitate. She knew it was time to do something to help all of those who would be suffering the most from the effects of the pandemic.

She took action, joining up with Quarantena Solidale (supportive quarantine). The initiative operates out of Communia, a community centre run by a collective of activists who turned an abandoned mechanic’s shop into a multipurpose social space within Rome’s San Lorenzo neighbourhood. Along with her Communia “comrades” (as Autore and her fellow activists refer to one another), Autore did things like grocery shopping for dozens of struggling families and purchasing medications for the elderly, activities financed by donations from the district’s residents and through the centre’s initiatives.

At the beginning of the pandemic, associations like these that promote self-government took over, as they had so often in the past. Adhering to an anti-capitalist left ideology, organizations like Communia can be found all over Italy, where they have been in operation for over 40 years. Driven by young people’s disillusionment with politics and the economic system it created, these movements embracing self-government also meet a need expressed by the most vulnerable members of society: spaces where they can meet and organise into collectives that are better suited to claim their rights.

“We don’t want to replace the institutions, but we want to highlight their shortcomings through our mutual-aid activities and fight against the denial of [our] rights,” explains Autore.

Within the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the ring road surrounding Rome, there are around 70 community centres that for decades have focused on such issues as the fight against racism and sexism, universal welfare, and the right to work. Official political institutions consider these occupied spaces illegal, however, and each year they try to forcefully vacate them, sometimes successfully.

Autonomous community centres: A Roman story

Rome’s movement toward self-government first came into existence in the 1970s and ’80s. The meeting between left-wing extra-parliamentary associations and the counterculture of the time – such as the Italian punk movement that emerged in the ’80s – shaped the experimental nature of newly created community centres.

The downsides of economic expansion and material consumption led to the first rumblings of self-government in abandoned factories and industrial districts on the outskirts of the city. Activists in this burgeoning movement established themselves as a new force, engaged in tactics different from those carried out by the working-class movements of past decades, explains Simone Ranocchiari, a PhD candidate at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Lausanne. “We can consider this experience as being born from the material and symbolical ruins of Fordism,” Ranocchiari says.

In the 1990s, community centres assumed a dominant role in the Italian political discourse and cultural life. Their existence is tied to student movements such as Pantera (or panther), a name chosen to honour a big cat that was spotted prowling the streets of Rome on 27 December, 1989, scaring residents, who then called the police in a panic. The feline was never caught, prompting the students to proclaim la pantera siamo noi (we are the panther). The centres were deeply connected to the younger generations’ counterculture and its forms of expression. Music and concerts livened up once-abandoned factories and hangars into political and cultural centres for an entire generation.

In the early 2000s, the movements against globalisation that sparked all over the world first emerged here, placing community centres at the forefront of the mobilisation of people fighting for a different world order. Then came the Great Recession of 2008, which threw Rome into economic disrepair. It was a turning point: what came after was inevitably marked by global financial trauma.

The city lost 6% of its GDP between 2008 and 2016, according to data provided by the Italian minister for economic development. Unemployment grew to 9.1%, while each year the number of young people holding a job decreased by 1.1%. Job insecurity and exploitation became inescapable conditions for thousands of young people who were entering the job market.

In April of 2012, budget balancing was introduced in the Italian constitution to comply with the European Fiscal Stability Treaty, which was ratified by the European Union the same year. This sped up the process of selling real estate owned by the local government, in an effort to fulfill the metropolis’s growing debt.

It was at this point that para-unionist activism and mutualist practices began to take hold in community centres. Salvatore Cannavò, a journalist and author of the book Mutualism: Back to the Future for the Left, explains that such initiatives were conceived as instrumental in the creation of social ties among the dispossessed, who felt unrepresented by politics. Economic crisis had made “social-class reconstruction” the beacon of the movements’ political activity.

Today, many community centres are intertwining political demands and activism with solidarity. The core tenets of self-government in Rome have expanded to include the retaking of spaces in the urban realm. Their catchphrase is “neither public nor private — communal”, the last term implying the collective usage of urban spaces. And the San Lorenzo neighbourhood is the laboratory where these impulses have come together.

San Lorenzo: The heart of Roman antagonism

San Lorenzo
The working-class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo, home to numerous community centres, has a long history of activism. (Photo by Marco Marchese)

Surrounded by the Aurelian Walls, squeezed between Termini railway station and La Sapienza University, San Lorenzo is the heart of Roman activism. It was only after a siege that the fascists managed to take this neighbourhood after Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922. The history of the Italian left wing was made here, from the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, Italian Communist Party) to Autonomia Operaia (Labourers Autonomous), the country’s most influential radical left organisation until the 1970s. Community centres like Esc, Communia and Cinema Palazzo, all located in this district, were tied to these movements.

A working-class area, San Lorenzo today is crossed daily by thousands of students. Gentrification increasingly dictates its development as historical workshops give way to cocktail bars and restaurants. It’s also here that the hunger of real-estate developers has taken root. Investment funds and multinationals have sensed the relevance of the neighbourhood and have started investing money here.

Community centres are working to mitigate gentrification and displacement. They also provide services that local administration no longer does, such as libraries, study halls, healthcare and mental-health support desks. Also on offer are on classes in physics, literature and other subjects as well as Italian-language classes for foreigners.

All things held in common

Communia
Communia provides a place to study, debate and discuss the issues of the day. Its red entrance gate is always open. (Photo by Marco Marchese)

A banner spanning the iron grating of Communia reads Omnia Sunt Communia (“All things are held in common”), the famous motto of the Protestant minister Thomas Müntzer, whose opposition to both Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church led to his open defiance of late-feudal authority in central Germany. It is here at the community centre onVia dello Scalo San Lorenzo 33 that Communia has taken shape.

In 2013, hundreds of people occupied the decrepit buildings on this block. The protesters were university students and young, precariously employed workers, all of them fresh from the recent student mobilisations that had shaken the country, and Rome in particular. The student movement, called Onda Anomala (Tidal Wave), was protesting against university reform passed in 2008 by the government of then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which had drastically cut financing to research and public education.

“We gave an abandoned space back to the neighbourhood, snatching it from the appetites of property speculation and real-estate profits,” recalls Silvio Paone, an activist of Communia, one of the first to occupy the place. He was there the day that a river of people overflowed into the dilapidated buildings. Then a student, now a researcher of infectious disease, Paone explains that in the span of just a few months, the occupied building was completely renovated by volunteers and activists. Communia is run and maintained by volunteer students who take turns keeping it open.

Today, Communia houses Sharewood, a freely accessible study room with book-sharing services and wi-fi, a small concert hall and the tailor’s shop Midè. Sharewood was created to make up for the lack of spaces for study and discussion in a neighbourhood that borders one of the biggest universities in Europe. It’s a place to meet and analyse the shortcomings of the Italian education system, a place where students are organising themselves to demand a university that is free and open to everyone. “Ours isn’t a utopia but an outpost in which to fuel the conflict within and outside the university,” says Federica Antonelli, a student at La Sapienza.

Also onsite is Degender, a collective focused on discussing and dealing with gender issues, and a help desk where exploited workers can seek assistance. One of those workers was Nigerian-born Yemisi Adeboye, who had been living in Italy for over a decade. Life hadn’t been easy since she moved to Europe.

In Lagos, she had a clothing shop – sewing and patching was her job. Communia helped her get set up to do that work here in her adopted country. Adeboye’s six-year-old son attends the Di Donato elementary school, one the most ethnically diverse schools in Rome. Several of the other kids’ mothers, including Silvia Zaccaria, had noticed Adeboye’s talent and decided to help her. “A respectable job is crucial. Especially if you have to support your son alone and you find yourself living in a foreign country,” says Zaccaria.

a sewing shop
Yemisi Adeboye in her sewing shop, Midè. (Photo by Marco Marchese)

Assistance to the mother led to the creation of Midè, which in the Yoruba language means “the time for joy has come.” Adeboye now has five tailors employed with her in the tiny shop, working fabrics with sewing machines and weaving the colourful skirts hanged along the walls. “We believe that being welcoming is to provide migrants with the means to become independent,” says Paone.

A cinema for the people

A gathering of La Libera Repubblica di San Lorenzo
The neighbourhood gathers in front of Cinema Palazzo for the first public event after lockdown, organised by La Libera Repubblica di San Lorenzo. (Photo by Marco Marchese)

“We didn’t want a casino in San Lorenzo. We wanted the cinema to stay the same and be a space for the community,” explains Miranda Apruzzese, a neighbourhood resident and activist affiliated with one of Rome’s most eccentric community centres.

Built in 1929, the Cinema Palazzo, which overlooks Dei Sanniti square, a tiny plot of asphalt in the heart of San Lorenzo, sat abandoned for many years. Over a decade ago, citizens, artists and students occupied the historical building to prevent it from being turned into a casino. In 2011, the cinema reopened as a showcase for art and culture, host to theatre workshops, concerts, readings and debates, exhibitions and movie screenings. The entrance fee for all these events is kept as low as possible to give everyone the chance to enjoy its offerings.

All of the profits from the enterprise are used to cover the centre’s expenses (lights, microphones and other devices) and pay the artists for their performances. “Acknowledging art as a job is one of our centre’s core principles,” says Apruzzese, who goes on to explain how in Italy, jobs related to the world of art and culture are often discredited.

Many artists have performed here, including Elio Germano and Marcello Fonte, who have both won the prize for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. But Cinema Palazzo is also, as local residents call it, a “home for the neighbourhood”. Atletico San Lorenzo, a multi-sports association that brings together many of the younger district residents, was founded here. The organisation believes that to be able to practise sport is a universal right, and it promotes its values of solidarity and respect.

Cinema Palazzo is also home to La Libera Repubblica di San Lorenzo, a network of associations, community centres and residents who gather to discuss the area’s future. La Libera has fought many battles against real-estate speculation, the privatisation of public space and the gentrification processes that threaten the neighbourhood. In 2014, for example, the network opposed the repurposing of the former Dogana area (a former railway customs check where, in 1942, around 1,000 Jewish people were sent to Auschwitz) into a shopping centre. (It was turned into a venue for concerts in 2015 but was abandoned again last year.)

La Libera has also fought for the preservation of parks and gardens in the district, denouncing the lack of attention and care that the government has for their community and how few services it provides. “To shape a community that takes care of its territory. This is our goal,” says Emilia Giorgi, a network member.

In June of this year, the activists took to the streets to collectively rethink the neighbourhood urban structure, whose weaknesses have been highlighted by Covid-19. They’ve been using paint and brushes to accommodate social-distancing requirements, with a particular emphasis, says Giorgi, on those “spaces capable of transforming the necessary social distancing into an innovative experience”.

This article was translated from Italian by Daniele Ruzza.