I've done some pontificating in the last little while about the importance of alternative community spaces.
I think they are essential because of both their vibrancy and their ability to act as agents for intersecting all sorts of activist organizing. I think we need that epicentre, in order to effectively harness the various webs of struggle and bring to life a culture of organizing that reaches beyond the day to day mundanities.
This isn't to romanticize the concept, stripping it of the blood, sweat and tears it takes to sustain both the energy and the finite resources demanded by it all. It's not easy, but Winnipeg's Albert Street Autonomous Zone collective (A-Zone) has been struggling with this since the 1990s.
The A-Zone, located at 91 Albert Street in Winnipeg's historic district, was taken over in 1995 by Paul Burrows, who turned it into an anarchist organizing space -- the Old Market Autonomous Zone -- and eventually founded the Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse on the first floor.
The building is set up as a space to house various worker-run businesses and activist organizations. All operate in a non-hierarchical fashion, with no bosses and no managers. Even janitorial duties are done by collective members. Past and present groups with offices in the building consist of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, Canadian Dimension magazine, Junto Library, ParIT worker co-op, CopWatch, FemRev, The Boreal Forest Network, among others.
The space uses Participatory Economics (PareCon) to solidify its non-hierarchal and non-oppressive safer spaces vision. Sustaining and housing so many co-ops and groups in this fashion is no easy task.
In 2012, the "Albert Street Autonomous Zone Co-op" bought the building from Burrows, forming ownership directly as a collective. This made financing somewhat challenging.
Tim Brandt, who started to access the space in the early 2000s, told me, "Activists have had to become willing to clean up and patch the building ... becoming so involved in all the nuts and bolts of the managing and upkeep has taken its toll."
Brandt also noted the potential issue with one space within a city serving as a venue for so many activist causes; what happens if someone has a bad experience, discouraging them from ever returning?
It's also a challenge to avoid burnout and fatigue, with all the work of being both building owners and caretakers. Many people can probably relate to the efforts of trying to balance family life and minimal income with activist ventures and campaigns. Brandt explained that it's the same for many collective members of the space.
But it's easy to get hung up on the activist blues, and not recognize the volume of amazing organizing that has been done and is being done in our communities.
According to Brandt, the A-Zone has "managed to fulfill the promise of Paul's vision by helping it evolve ... to a fully collective-run non-hierarchal co-op."
The strength of a physical office and activist space where members participate equally in its maintenance and management is proof, for the left, of what we can accomplish. No landlords, no problem.
And while it's important not to idealize our movement successes, such as the A-Zone, it's also significant to be aware that we exist in a polarity of two worlds sometimes. The day-to-day survival in this neo-liberal climate, and our efforts to create and house alternatives and bring them to life. It's a struggle but we make it work.
The Albert Street Autonomous Zone seems to me a test of a different kind of model. The kind where certain people don't have more say, or more resources, in the space than others. And the sort of building where activist causes are the bottom line.
The A-Zone is an ongoing success.
Tania Ehret is as a contributing editor with rabble.ca
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