|This article relies on references to primary sources. (July 2012)|
Social centers (or social centres) are community spaces. They are buildings which are used for a range of disparate activities, which can be linked only by 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 centers are common in many European cities, sometimes in squats, sometimes in rented buildings.
Also known as a free space, social centers may be designated "safe-space" where specific forms of dialogue and activism are encouraged and protected from harassment, or they may be intended to serve as open space for community interaction among widely disparate groups without censorship. There is a great deal of overlap between the two types.
Social centers that are open to the general public are also part of the general third place movement in community building. Third places which include small commercial or non-reclaimed urban spaces (or reclaimed from commercial activity towards cooperative use) such as community coffee houses may serve a similar function with or without an organizing focus besides localism.
Social centers provide a place to socialize 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 organized include events, meetings, exhibitions, classes and workshops on a range of topics.
Whilst every individual case is different, most centers are run on the basis of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making. Most centers lean to the left politically, including anarchist, autonomist or communist viewpoints. Centers tend to adopt an ethical vegan philosophy, whilst accepting that individuals involved may have differing personal lifestyles. Individual are often artivists.
Writer-activist Naomi Klein reports that many "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."
Difference from community centers
Social centers are distinguished from community centers in the particular relationship social centers have toward the state and governmental institutions. While a community center is any center of "public" activity, occasionally sanctioned by the state or private interests such as a corporation, social centers 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.
Seomra Spraoi (English: Play Room) in Dublin has occupied various locations since 2004, the most recent since 2008.
The social center 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 and Gramigna in Padova, Spartaco in Ravenna, Officina 99 in Naples, Forte Prenestino and Corto Circuito in Rome, Cox 18 and Leoncavallo in Milan, CPA Centro Popolare Autogestito Firenze Sud in Florence and Anomalia in Palermo.
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 centers in Italy continue to be centers 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).
Since the 1960s, there has been a long and continuous tradition of squatted social centers in the Netherlands, particularly in the capital, Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, the ASCII center 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 theater.
In Barcelona, there is a tight network of squatted social centers 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. Also, in cities like Madrid, there is a movement of this kind of social center that offer free activities such as language teaching, communal meals, and space for musicians to practice, such as La Tabacalera, El Dragon and La Casika in Mostoles.
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 centers around the country on one side and the state or large NGO-sponsored community centers on the other. Despite there being a tradition of large squats, the recent upsurge in social centers 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, notable social centres have included the London Action Resource Centre, rampART, the Freedom Club, 56a Crampton Street infoshop, The Square' and in the old Vortex Jazz Club on Stoke Newington Church Street.
Elsewhere in the UK, there is Autonomous Centre Edinburgh (ACE), Oxford Action Resource Centre, Kebele in Bristol, the Sumac Centre in Nottingham, The 1 in 12 Club in Bradford, the Cowley Club in Brighton. In the past notable centres have included The Basement in Manchester, Justice not crisis in Birmingham, The PAD in Cardiff, Next To Nowhere in Liverpool, Forest Café in Edinburgh, Giros in Belfast, Matilda Centre in Sheffield and the Common Place in Leeds.
Many social centres are squats, and as such have a very short life span.
Rest of Europe
Some places have a good social centre 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, Scheld'apen in Antwerp and MoË in Vienna.
- Art space
- Coffeehouse (event)
- Community centre
- Cultural center
- English coffeehouses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
- Salon (gathering)
- Klein, N. Fences and Windows, Picador USA, 2001 ISBN 0-312-30799-3.
- "The Social Centre Network" as described by the London Action Resource Centre.