I’m sitting with an Afghan, a Bangladeshi, a Senegalese, a Bulgarian, some Italians, and a Turk on a bench in an abandoned lot in Rome. Last year, this lot was filled with half a dozen vats of marmalade made from wild oranges collected by Roman citizens for a fundraising effort to support a group of Malian immigrants. The decaying edifice that looms behind us was once a textile factory under Mussolini and now hosts several immigrant families who fled Rosarno, where they had been the victims of hate crimes. It also hosts kick-ass dance parties on weekends.
In front of us, an African man, who just taught us Bambara (the primary language of Mali), transcribes words on a whiteboard to help an illiterate Afghan teach us Pashtun via an Italian interpreter. It’s just a typical day at the Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito Ex Snia Viscosa, fondly known as Ex Snia. In English, CSOA translates to Occupied and Self-Managed Social Center. “Occupied” because it's run by squatters who took a government-owned space and turned it into a variety show of community ventures.
Ex Snia can be spotted from the street by the white painted bike mounted above a red iron gate. A tattered, graffiti-marked warehouse sits amid a cluster of outdoor picnic tables in front and a patio out back where artisanal beer is on tap during summer months. Metal sculptures made by crafty bike mechanics are scattered in the backyard. Socially conscious citizens fill every nook and cranny. Think Occupy Wall Street meets Shangri-La.
"The most important thing in my opinion about social centers is not that they are against something," my friend Sezgi tells me as we walk around. "They are creating, they are building, they are constructing things that will bring our community to a better point.” Sezgi is a 29-year-old Turkish woman with a devilish smile and inquisitive hazel eyes. We met at a free Italian language course for women just after I moved to Rome from New York more than two years ago. Since then, she has been trying to get me to drink the centro sociale Kool-Aid. By now, I've taken a rather large gulp.
What distinguishes these social centers from the YMCA is their dependency on private citizens to function; what distinguishes them from Zuccotti Park is the fact that the government allows them to exist. Some believe there’s a vague loophole in the Constitution that grants Italian citizens a right to squat in unused spaces. In reality, it’s more of a gentleman’s agreement: The Italian government turns a blind eye. In the case of Ex Snia, the area was designated to be turned over to a major construction company to build a shopping center in the 1990s. When citizens learned of the plan, they stormed the area and occupied it. The government didn’t interfere, so the contractors were out of luck. And it’s been that way ever since.
The trend of appropriating public spaces began in Italy at another point of social unrest in the 1970s. Today there are hundreds of centri sociali throughout the country and 33 in Rome alone. Recently, because of their members' super-leftist political views, social centers have become the scapegoats in protests that have turned chaotic. After the October 15 riots in Rome, the government and media pointed fingers at the centers, labeling them as anarchist breeding grounds.
Since I moved to Rome, I had been waiting for a project or activity that excited me. I was used to the Big Apple's big personalities crowding the streets and using the subways as soapboxes. I began to take New York's everyday diversity and vibrant youth culture for granted and arrived in the Eternal City expecting to pick up where I'd left off. Instead, I found Italy culturally segregated. I was dismayed at the lack of leadership and initiative coming from the country's young people. My friend Allegra recently joined a crowd of elated students throwing coins at the Quirinal Palace to bid ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi good riddance. After the crowd's fifth rendition of the song Bella Ciao, she thought to herself, "So now what?"
Amid a year of global protest and at the height of the Eurozone crisis, the world is turning their eyes towards Italy to see whether "the boot" will put its foot down. With Berlusconi gone, Italy is screaming for a faction with radical new ideas and the confidence to lead the struggling country into a sustainable economic position. But many Italians lament that there is no one here to fill that role. Italian culture is firmly rooted in tradition and waiting your turn. Its fogeyish environment panders to the over-40 population and has convinced young people that they are powerless to effect change. Newspapers fret over the “brain drain”—the stagnancy or the exodus of the new, overly educated generation.
But now I'm wondering if they’re wrong. The group I’m sitting with at Ex Snia isn’t here to learn languages for that ultra-competitive international job or exclusive slot in one of the world's top graduate programs. They’re not looking for a way out—they're traveling the world and coming right back. They are ordinary Roman citizens and immigrants with progressive global outlooks, responding to Italy’s capitalist transformation.
"You can't put an elephant in a little vegetable garden," explains an impish old man who introduces himself as Signore Carciofo (Mr. Artichoke). He is one of the original founders of Ex Snia who revived the junkyard lot in 1995. Mr. Artichoke expands on his adage: When he was 14 and working for the Marshall Plan, he watched foreign dollars change his country from a sustainable society of small communities and small economies to an engorged mega-market entirely dependent on foreign finance. "The land is what gives Italy its worth," he tells me. "To save Italy, we need to give the elephant back to the zoo and start planting to stimulate the garden's regrowth."
I look around: The roots have taken hold. We sit down on a weathered bench opposite the warehouse with a view of the garden and an outdoor gallery of street art akin to 5 Pointz. Behind us is the Ciclofficina, a bike shop where Sezgi's Italian husband, Fabrizio, teams up with other cyclists twice a week to help people repair or assemble their own bikes as part of an effort to cut down on Rome's traffic pollution. Like all initiatives at Ex Snia, the bike shop is constructed and maintained by volunteers and donations. Everything here is free.
"[Ex Snia is] a place that lives the reality of the street, that rejects the logic of profit and practices politics based on self-organization," says Dario, an active member behind many of Ex Snia's political initiatives. "[P]articipation, anti-fascism, and anti-racism are our daily practices."
Like they have the occupiers, media pundits have labeled members of social centers like Ex Snia as “anarchists,” “socialists,” “communists,” or “dirty hippies.” But none of those labels quite fit. "We may be children of hippie, communist or socialist parents, but our worldview is more about working for our society rather than escaping from it," Sezgi says. "We want to be a part of the society that we want to change, so we need a new label to describe us. I wouldn't like to be called any of those things."
When Sezgi moved here from Turkey three years ago, she found it more difficult than she'd expected to make Italian friends. She discovered Ex Snia through a flier advertising a reggae party, and has been involved ever since. In August, she connected with two Italian women who helped her find a solution to the problem of gardening in Ex Snia's contaminated earth, a byproduct of the land's former use as a textile plant. Using dirt from the compost pile Sezgi started last year, they supplied eco-friendly community members of all ages with the materials they'd need to contribute their favorite crops to the newly installed box garden, one of botanical architect Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates. Today, the box garden has more than two dozen organic crops in bloom.
I remark that moving the garden from its original location at the American Academy and installing it here must have taken a lot of manpower. "Not manpower! It's all womenpower here," Sezgi corrects me. Indeed, social centers are bringing a feminist tinge to patriarchal Italy. Ex Snia hosts weekly self-defense courses for women and inspired local family planning centers to offer women-only Italian language courses, like the one where Sezgi and I met. At all social centers, free language classes are "open" format, meaning there is no enrollment process or paperwork required, making it easier for those with delicate immigration statuses to study Italian. It's a way for immigrants to learn their rights and find a support system.
The inclusive center struck me as a utopia apart from the xenophobia I noticed all around me. In Italy, fear of “the other” is par for the course. The country itself is a loose conglomerate of disgruntled city-states that feel animosity towards each other. Add to the mix an influx of refugees seeking political asylum, and it's not hard to see how racism thrives in a nation whose own people can't even play nice. A Human Rights Watch report from March 2011 quoted an Italian woman who was chastised by a compatriot on the bus for speaking with a Moroccan friend: "If you talk to them, they'll never leave!"
She's right. I moved to Rome with a proficiency in Italian that began and ended with "buongiorno.” Now, I'm approaching my third New Year's celebration with my Italian friends who taught me to speak their language fluently.
As I'm getting ready to hop on my bike and head home from Ex Snia, I bump into Mr. Artichoke. "It's difficult to change Italy, because we are old," he tells me as the sun sets over the rumpled metal fence. "But there's an old saying: I love my country because I've seen the world."
For more photos of Ex Snia, click here. Photo above by Sezgi Uygur