By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By Carolina de Busto
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
It's 10 o'clock on a Monday night, and all is well on the Hill. The sidewalks are quiet under the orange streetlights, and only an occasional passing car shakes the stillness of the evening.
There's nothing remarkable about the corner storefront at Macklind and Magnolia. Red-brick walls frame glass-brick windows, and a lit Allstate Insurance sign sits high on the northern wall, a relic of a previous tenant. Another sign, this one unlit, proclaims in modest lowercase: centro sociale. Were it not for the sign's broken-typewriter typeface and proud red stars, it could be a holdover from the days when all the signs in this neighborhood were in Italian.
Step inside, and there's no mistaking that you're in the here and now. A dozen young people sit in a circle, smoke cigarettes and argue about how to run our city's only collectively managed art and music space. They all make the decisions and nobody gets paid; this is art for art's sake, a living argument against the profit system. But the Centristas don't have time for grandiose theories when there are urgent questions to be answered: When is the darkroom going to be finished? Should we continue to allow dogs into the space? How do we run a successful hip-hop night? Can anybody get ahold of a video projector?
Welcome to the weekly meeting of the Centro Sociale collective (say "chen-tro so-chee-ah-lay"). Here, plans are made and big ideas dreamed up, with one crucial difference from so many like-minded endeavors: These things actually get done. Original artwork by several local artists fills the walls. The basement has become one of the busiest punk-rock clubs in town and is starting to host other kinds of music as well; shows are always all-ages, and no alcohol is allowed on the premises. An extensive zine library acts as a sort of countercultural museum. And then there are the weekly Monday-night meetings where everything gets hashed out. The meetings can get contentious, but there's never any doubt that everyone is here for a common purpose: to make St. Louis a better, freer and more fun place to live through art, music and activism.
"We want to get the idea to people that the mall and bars on Washington with a $10 cover aren't cultural centers, and they aren't the only way to get out of your boring life," says collective member Duane Perry. "I love St. Louis," says member Nikki Stewart, "but I find myself getting bored a lot in St. Louis. I decided instead of being bored all the time I wanted to create something like this, something that I wanted to see here." The initial impetus came from several different directions. For a couple of years, Stewart and her sister, Nina, have occasionally let bands play in the basement of the building, owned by their father, Tom. They weren't the first; until very recently, unofficial basement shows were the lifeblood of the St. Louis punk scene. Such venues as the Arsenal, the Punk Paradise, the Bordello and the Grotto were known equally for exciting shows and predictable hassles from the police.
A group of punk cohorts took a trip to Italy last January and saw that country's thriving network of anarchist community centers, at least one in every city. "All the kids hang out there, and they have shows," says member Sarah Kate Buckles, "and it's called the centro sociale."
Also, most Centristas have traveled fairly extensively in the U.S., witnessing firsthand similar efforts from New York to Berkeley. Chad Schneider, who grew up in the Twin Cities and has lived in New York, says that being involved in the Centro is one of the things keeping him in St. Louis. "It's something that really feels right," he says. "It seems like a necessary part of big-city life for people who don't want to be the same as everybody else. There needs to be an alternative."
Collective member Liz Snell agrees: "I'd say I was in desperate need of this and St. Louis was in desperate need of this," she says. As the group coalesced around the idea that a fully legal art center was possible, a series of benefit picnics in Tower Grove Park last summer raised much-needed funds. The picnic proceeds were added to the $20 a month that each member pays in dues. Cash now (barely) in hand, the group approached Tom Stewart about renting the basement and first floor of the building on Macklind. To hear group members tell it, he's been nothing but supportive.
"He's never asked us to explain anything," Snell says. "It's always been, whatever we want to do, he helps us out, no questions asked. When an inspector is there at 8 in the morning and we don't get out of bed till 8:15, Tom's always there to deal with them and tell us what we need to do."
The members unanimously consider the Centro Sociale's grand opening celebration on July 15 their most successful event yet. The all-day revel was gratifying evidence that an audience existed in St. Louis for what the Centro had to offer. One of the most eclectic musical bills in recent St. Louis history provided the soundtrack; the visuals came courtesy of several collective members. The painting and photography easily matched the quality of that shown in any art-school gallery in town, with an added punk-inspired intensity. It was an auspicious beginning and an optimistic time for the Centristas. Most heartening, it showed the Centro kids that they could reach out beyond the parochialism of the punk scene. "It was entirely varied," says collective member Matt James. "There was everything: poetry readings, bagpipers, punk bands, a hip-hop group. Films were shown, just everything."