Occupied Public Spaces in Rome as Hotbeds of Cultural Activism of Youth

Many young Romans were looking forward to 15th of May this year, when their favorite centro sociale named SCUP, situated in the central zone of Rome, was supposed to celebrate its third birthday.

However, instead of meeting to prepare symbolic annotation of the date, they have gathered for a different reason – to protest against the unannounced ravage of the building of SCUP (Sport Cultura Popolare) that took place last week.

While owners claim that, as an illegally occupied space, it should provide another purpose; citizens say the building successfully serves as a community center offering much needed sport and cultural activities and needs to stay in the hands of citizens.

What is now known as SCUP was once the administrative center for vehicle registration. After days of abandonment, the place was cleaned up and brought back to life in 2012 by young activists and residents of the neighborhood of San Giovanni, district that was lacking public spaces for sport and arts for years.

“Occupying is an expression of public outrage,” said a young activist Carlo to an Al Jazeera reporter during the days of occupation. For almost three years, SCUP provided sport facilities, library and art courses for adults and children, including kids with learning disabilities and developmental delays.

SCUP is only one of many occupied empty facilities that were taken over by its citizens who revived them, thus creating a new, alternative cultural scene of Rome.

In the last couple of years, occupation became the common scenario in many parts of Rome, as various citizens’ movements took over theaters, public facilities and apartment buildings to develop social and cultural projects. According to the Rome city council, there were around 3.000 occupied buildings in Rome in 2012, which makes it one of the European cities with the highest number of occupied spaces in Europe.

While tourists are worshiping Rome’s marvellous historic sites, social centres that are usually located in hidden corners of the city are the places where history is currently in the making. Previously neglected buildings are repurposed as hotbeds of cultural and communal growth and celebration of arts by new generation of cultural workers and artists of the Italian capital.

Providing different cultural activities, centri sociali across the city operate under different circumstances as well. Unlike SCUP, activists of cultural center Nuovo Cinema Palazzo in San Lorenzo do not have to fear the threat of eviction.

In 2011, when local residents learned that the cinema was to be transformed into a casino, they started protests that became an almost three-year occupation of the building. The case got into court and occupiers proved that their use of the space, though technically in violation of the law, was in the best interest of the community. The state ruled in their favor, allowing them to continue occupying the cinema. “This was very important because it created a precedent,” explained Emma, a participant in the occupation for Wanted in Rome.

The 18th-century Teatro Valle was occupied during the same year as citizens’ reaction to the plan of the governments to privatize the oldest theatre in Rome that staged operas, dramas and melodramas throughout three centuries. The occupation gained international support from numerous cultural institutions across the globe with the goal to restore governance to its original purpose – to promote and protect the people’s wellbeing. After some time, their efforts were rewarded when the theatre officially became a foundation, which legitimized the movement.

“Come triste la prudenza“ (“How sad is the prudence”), a phrase from a Rafael Spregelburd’s play „Bizzara“ that became a motto of the occupation of Teatro Valle, is now a well known brand of the cultural movement that gives the city of Rome a new vivid charm.

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