Metelkova city defines itself as an autonomous social centre in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but this definition does not even begin to describe what it is. Metelkova is a colorful, constantly evolving squat in the middle of Ljubljana, which started out as Austro-Hungarian army barracks in the 19th century and was used by the Yugoslavian army for many years, before Slovenia became independent in 1991. After the barracks were abandoned, many Slovenian artists and activists petitioned the government to creatively use the empty space, but their requests went unheard.
In 1993, they decided to occupy the space, which is about 12.500 square meters in total, and declared it an autonomous zone. After a tumultous bit of history, Metelkova city is now known as one of the most successful squats in Europe and continues to tip-toe the line. It has become a true social centre of alternative culture and features several independent venues: concert halls, LGBT clubs, a gallery, creative and learning spaces, a society for the culture of the handicapped, a former prison converted into a (legal) hostel, and Jalla Jalla, a bar often plagued by inspection due to illegal alcohol sale, which recently burned down, but has already been rebuilt.
Since I was born in 1994 and raised in Ljubljana, I practically grew up with Metelkova and spent most of my teenage years there. When I was just entering the turbulence of teenagery, the public view still considered Metelkova a best avoided rough place, where the police sometimes had to intervene due to small fights or drugs, despite being declared a national cultural heritage site in 2006. It had an additionally bad reputation due to a drug rehabilitation centre nearby, as Metelkova was wrongly considered the meeting place of violent addicts (if any did wander over, they were promptly removed by the community). However, despite the reputation or maybe because of it, most us hang out there every Friday for years, drinking our first beers and feeling welcome. I am happy to say that my experiences there had been positive and I never once felt truly unsafe, as the reputation was vastly undeserved.
I will not claim that there were never any drug users or unsavoury characters around, as Metelkova was and is primarily a growing community of individuals, which has always welcomed anyone, young or old, Slovenian or foreign, so long as they remained respectful and friendly towards everyone. Its main purpose is to provide an informal social space for all kinds of alternative, independent artistic and cultural activities, as well as political activism. In order to exist as such, particularly with its illegal status, Metelkova has always been self-regulated, with zero tolerance for discrimination, antisocial and violent behaviour and has managed to clean up its act to the point that some cultural projects are financed by the state.
The individuals managing the squat have succeeded in creating a balance with the government, as they have never attempted to detach as a separate political entity or undermine the authorities of Ljubljana. An article from the Guardian put it quite well: “Metelkova, …, has built its image firmly on its artistic and cultural credentials. It’s autonomous, but not anarchistic; liberal, but not lawless.” In the recent years, Metelkova’s value in terms of cultural contribution and as place for civic engagement has been widely recognised, which has resulted in less inspections and raids by the authorities and they tend to increasingly ignore the illegal alcohol sale. As for the squat itself, the illegal occupation of the buildings is still undesired, but it now has to be tolerated, since Metelkova is too ingrained in the local urban culture to be eliminated.
Over the years I’ve attended numerous concerts, dance nights and performances, as well as participated in impromptu drum circles and art workshops. For teenage me, Metelkova had been a place of growth, where we could always be ourselves without judgement or consequences and learned many unexpected things. I’ve met interesting people from all walks of life there and each one of them had influenced my life in a tiny way, which I might not have experienced in an ordinary setting. Now that I’ve grown up, it is a place to catch up with my friends and with the best parties, where I can dance the night away as weirdly as I want to.
Impressions of Metelkova
Visiting Metelkova: In the recent years, Metelkova has also become a tourist attraction, with many groups visiting at all times of day and night. It is perfectly safe to visit at any time, but expect it to be a bit rough around the edges and the streets are dirty, despite the clean up efforts. It is also safe and very fun to attend any of the events, as they are very well organised, with cloakrooms and security at the door, although the toilets are horrible. But, to anyone visiting, I’d like to remind you, that Metelkova is a place where real people come to express themselves or relax as they please, which is not something that should be gawked at, photographed and plastered on social media, unless you have their permission.