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"Every group of people that we're trying to reach out to was there," says Snell. "We had really good art from a lot of people and really good music from people mixing and people rapping to hardcore bands and girl bands." In the weeks that followed, the collective made their first foray into direct political activism with a march to protest the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The noisy protesters commandeered a MetroLink car on the way from the U. City Loop to South Grand. This was in addition to a handful of well-attended punk shows at the space.
But much of this momentum was squandered in a months-long battle to stay open. The culturally conservative Hill neighborhood is not the most promising soil for a leftist art collective to flower in, and soon the Centro was beset by complaints from bewildered neighbors. The locals didn't see the active, focused, positive kids diligently at work; they saw the dunderheaded teen cartoon punks who flipped cigarette butts on their lawns. One angry Hill resident demanded that the Centro remove a copy of Teen Fag from the zine library (it stayed). And nobody seemed to believe that there wasn't a profit motive behind it all somewhere. As the space sat quiet and empty for weeks, waiting for this hearing or that meeting, some Centristas lost heart. Unused and unloved, the room gathered dust for two months. Some rock shows were canceled, and a Terrorist Art Organization exhibition was postponed. Morale was evaporating.
A long-awaited neighborhood association meeting in October finally turned the tide. At last the Centro kids had a chance to make their point. "We told them that we were here to bring art to a community that doesn't have a lot of art," Nikki Stewart says. "We're here for kids who wouldn't necessarily go to a gallery in the West End."
To their credit, the neighborhood association took them at their word, agreeing that such an endeavor was preferable to an empty storefront. Nikki Stewart credits her father and the neighborhood association's Susan Anderson for paving the way with City Hall. The Centro's occupancy permit hearing went off without a hitch, and suddenly the Centro Sociale was back in action. Now, says Buckles, "we love our neighbors."
But some members are skittish, remembering the feeling of having nearly lost the battle. "Sometimes I do feel uneasy," says Snell. "I feel like we've worked so hard for this, and it could be pulled out from under us at any time."
The Centristas are doing their best to put their insecurity aside and get busy with what they want to do. In addition to the steady diet of rock shows, the art-exhibit space is flourishing. Schneider credits the recent opening of the Terrorist Art Organization's Occupation show with renewing interest in the gallery. Future plans include showings of Bob Reuter's photography in January and Beth Connolly's paintings in February. Centristas may crack wise about the perpetually unfinished darkroom, but they are totally serious about getting it and other art workspaces built ASAP. The Centro writer's group starts meeting in January, and silkscreening and women's-lit workshops are in the planning stages. And a multiband girl-fest planned for February promises to be the big event of the winter.
Now the question becomes: Can they keep it going without burning out? Nobody can say, but the obvious pride that the Centro kids feel about all they've accomplished is a pretty powerful motivator. Together with such ventures as the CoLibri housing collective and the worker-owned Black Bear Bakery, they see themselves as part of a movement to change St. Louis by building nonhierarchical, alternative institutions.
"It's good that people come to St. Louis and see this collective art gallery and show space," Perry says. "I would be blown away if I went to another town and that was there. I've wanted that to be here since I was 16 years old."
The Centro Sociale, 2700 Macklind Ave., is open 6-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. For more information, call 664-2839.