\'Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” ~Jane Jacobs
Contemporary St-Petersburg is challenged with fulfilling the expectations of a cosmopolitan city, preserving its rich heritage and, providing young dwellers with a unique urban experience that support community bonding and free expression. The city has been ambushed by international corporations that coexist with local enterprises, and audacious initiatives such anti-cafés have emerged to function as counterculture to the overwhelming force of the global monolith.
The concept behind anti-cafés is simple and brilliant –a trait innate to simplicity. They are housed in flats of historic buildings, capitalizing on the city’s unique blend of heritage and present; they are eclectic environments with a home-like atmosphere where patrons do not pay for what they order, but for the time spent there: 2 rubles per minute ($0.04); after 4 hours the counting stops, and one can stay as long as one wishes throughout the day or the night.
Anti-cafés offer citizens a superb space for conversation, art performances, film discussions, poetry reading, solitude and solace. Anti-cafés display a variety of atmospheres within the airy space that they usually occupy, inviting customers to engage in conversation, read and write, connect digitally, play games and music, rest and sleep. They are filled with a miscellaneous of furniture pieces and styles, books-you-take-books-you-leave, a range of instruments, memorabilia, aiming to provide a space to just ‘be’. They are a reflection of the city’s intentionality and the commitment to give life to vacant properties at a symbolic price, and to nurture the convivial need that human beings crave.
Anti-cafés are hidden from the eye of the tourist and are treasured by locals as a way of resisting the high cost, fast pace of the coffee culture exported by corporate chains such Costa Coffee or Starbucks. I learned about anti-cafés from those who have taught me the greatest lessons during my time in Russia, my students. They hosted inspiring class gatherings, poetry readings and music performances at Цифербург (Zyferburg), revealing once more the power of exploring non-traditional learning spaces, the value of the ‘city as a classroom’, the understanding that learning takes place in social contexts and culture is the determining factor for constructing knowledge. I am a firm believer that the most powerful learning happens in environments that are conducive to building trust, to liberating the mind from academic boundaries, to exploring the full potential of one’s mind and heart through dialogue and understanding.
“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking.” ~Leo Tolstoy