Αs we discover and experience the conditions that have prevailed in the centre of Athens we are lead to look further into the specificities and oppositions that have marked the evolution of the city in recent years. We also realize that we need to act here and now.
After the Olympic games and given the absence of a program or plan to answer the pressing issues of a Mediterranean metropolis in transformation, the centre was almost abandoned to its fate. As a result, for many years now, the city has resembled a ship tossed helplessly on stormy seas. As central Athens grew in the characteristic manner of an disorder Mediterranean city, the market forces privileged the creation of entertainment zones and we saw phenomena of arbitrary and ruthless commercialization by unrestrained private developers, instead of the creation of well-planned residential areas for the middle classes.
The displacement of local inhabitants appeared as a clear trend, but in the long run it did not prove particularly advantageous for the upper middle class and their aspirations; instead, it created profits for short-term speculators and especially, the owners of nightspots and black economy enterprises.
On the ground, innumerable Chinese retail businesses and warehouses occupy today large part of the city centre. There is even a Chinese shopping mall in a multi-storey building behind Piraeus St. in the neighbourhood of Metaxourgeio.
The dominant trends when it comes to the statistics of land use in the historical centre of Athens indicate the existence of numerous warehouses, of waning businesses and retail shops as well as ethnic food restaurants like for example, the popular fast falafel that readily comes to mind or the Indian restaurant on Menandrou St. These had initially attracted a youngish cosmopolitan clientele but eventually declined as they became absorbed in the general shabbiness of the seedy streets. There is nowadays an ambiance of generalized uncertainty, especially between Athinas St. and Piraeus St. (Gerani area) where many large buildings remain closed. Urban nomads –i.e. displaced people in continual movement- hang out here trying to eke out the basics and engage among other things in a “game” of hide and seek with the ever more present foot and motorcycle police patrols.
In fact, the area could be divided in sections with their particularities:
- The area under Omonoia Square called “Gerani”, where we find the displaced urban nomads I referred to earlier. These people generally wish to relocate in central and/or Northern Europe. There are commercial shops and warehouses, the Municipal Centre for the Homeless, many sealed office premises, hotels and also, old buildings that provide cheap collective accommodation for migrants.
- The area of Metaxourgeio, a residential area with a large number of immigrants. We find many derelict buildings and empty spaces. Developers are building new trendy housing and there are art galleries and theatres.
- Psirri and Gazi are areas that underwent complete transformation with the intensive development of entertainment zones. Pre-existing communities were completely ignored in the process. Such communities comprised old Athenian families who had resisted the trend (since the 70’s) to move to the new middle class suburbs and away from the degraded inner city and also, various artisans e.g. leather workshops and cobblers in Psirri, smithies and metalwork in the wider area, car shops and service stations in Metaxourgeio. Gazi was home to the internal migrants from Thrace, the Turkish speaking Muslims with Greek citizenship. Finally, we should mention the shop owners below Omonoia Square who dealt in spices, perfumes etc
The brothels appeared around 1970, scattered over the historical centre of Athens. With a few exceptions, they operated without an official license and in time, many had to close down. Those that remained were mainly limited to a specific road in Metaxourgeio.
During the 80’s a vanguard of mostly theatre artists moved into the centre of the city. This happened for the usual obvious reasons such as the existence of ample rehearsal space in old industrial warehouses, low prices and because of the strong cultural, historical and human reminiscences that instilled a dialogue of the external with the internal; a dialogue that artists found inspiring. Some of the spaces they colonized are well known to us today: The theatre “Empros” (later abandoned), the theatre “Attis” of Teo Terzopoulos, the theatre “Thission”. The arrival of these artists eventually attracted more of their peers and it became a trend. As alternative artists settled in their new home, the LGBT community had started to gather around their new venues in Gazi.
Above all, immigration has played a determining role in the transformation of the city centre. Initially, internal migrants arrived looking for shelter and set up their coffee shops, groceries and associations. They gathered in and around Omonoia Square, met their kin and with other members of their social group to subsequently disperse around the city. After 1990, there are new arrivals. These are displaced urban nomads who had been moving around in emergency conditions. They start arriving from different locations. Due to its geography, the city of Athens was to become one of the main entrances of migrants directed towards Europe.
Once more, we see the creation of gathering places, coffee shops and groceries, restaurants, Internet points and phone call centres. By contrast, there is still no official reception policy for immigrants and asylum seekers. All they are faced with is a system of brutal arbitrariness.
Many become homeless and find shelter in public squares (how can one forget the Kurdish makeshift refugee camp in Koumoundourou Square) and in derelict buildings of the city centre. Globalized capitalism seems intent upon diminishing these voyagers to an extreme point. As a result, we often witness an array of fear tactics diligently meant to secure the cheap work force of the future.
In Athens, a swarm of exploiters and speculators take advantage of the situation to rent dilapidated properties at ridiculous prices. With black economy practices, they later sublet them to the indigent migrants who find themselves engaged in the narcotics trade and/or prostitution.
Following the Olympic games, a new class of real estate speculators has discovered the degraded city centre. It is a new era. “Lofts” are the order of the day attracting various bohemians who covet a lifestyle that imitates similar trends in cities like London and New York. Premises that originally hosted small manufactures were revamped and sold at soaring prices; developers bought vacant lots and erected luxury lofts (especially in the Gazi area). In general, by buying land below Omonoia Square and in Metaxourgeio, these real estate investors introduced a model that had already been applied extensively in other European cities. Their imagination ran wild with projects about luxury flats and lofts, renovated houses (many such examples around Kerameikos) and naturally, the prices followed suit (GEK group of companies). Despite the brisk displacement of a large number of the weak local communities, problems were soon looming in the horizon…
Ultimately, what kind of resource distribution are we faced with? Looking at the city centre today, it is only fair to doubt if real justice is anywhere to be found on the ground.
Conflicts are severe as the city undergoes a dangerous and uncontrolled transformation.
Social ecology and territorial justice
The city centre is a breeding ground of conflict. From the vantage point of a broader ecological outlook, this is a blatantly anti-ecological situation. According to Guattari, ecology seeks to redefine the relationship between human beings and nature, but also with respect to the social environment and human subjectivity. Ecology must envisage the others and the otherness of the city. The term social ecology is based on an understanding of nature as a world of participation and interaction.
In fact, we are faced with deliberations in the matters of the city that are anti-ecological and devoid of any sense of territorial justice. It is remarkable how many buildings fell into disuse and have remained vacant as a result of the policy that neglected the centre and privileged the development of the periphery. The administration failed to produce a viable program and consequently, most studies never materialized. On the other hand, it would make perfect sense to attribute ecological virtue to the displaced city nomads who –out of necessity- have colonized the vacant buildings in the city centre. Much as they have succeeded in bringing back to life the derelict properties, they nevertheless lack the means to improve things substantially.
Nowadays, it’s difficult to recognize the centre of the city. It is hardly anymore the kind of place that can afford provisional shelter for newcomers in abandoned buildings and street arcades. Conflicts have escalated and the street is not at all welcoming. In fact, it is almost violent and fear has eroded the friendly expression on people’s faces.
Boundaries are strongly marked and do not seem negotiable. Our mapping of the city cannot but reveal the unyielding red lines that restrict freedom of movement. The events of December 2008 have intensified this condition. Street battles seem inevitable.
Below Omonoia Square we find Africans, Pakistanis, Afghans etc (more than 200 ethnic groups). Many of them come from regions ravaged by war and extreme poverty. They live here in sordid conditions –you can tell simply by their clothes and facial expressions that betray something of a wild animal weathering an indefinite drought. For basic things like personal hygiene, many still have recourse to public fountains or automatic watering hoses, on the hours that the municipality turns them on. They scavenge even garbage cans for food and given the general lack of public lavatories they often use the streets. Many sleep in public parks and squares, in makeshift shelters made of plastic and newspapers. The majority pay 5 Euro per day to share basement rooms that function as dormitories where they sleep by shifts. These places may not have lavatories or water either. The stories they share speak of survival in lawlessness. Some have become pickpockets in public transport, there are those who smash car windows or commit shop burglaries. They steal what they can. When dusk falls, the side streets of Psirri and Metaxourgeio are not safe. Hunger and lack of shelter can reduce people to a savage state. In order to survive one can eventually do anything.
The majority of Africans tend to «set up shop» on the spot on pedestrian passages, busy pavements or public squares, selling imitation brand leather goods, pirate DVDs and music CDs, African folk art items etc Swarms of them can be seen along Aiolou St., in Monasteraki Square and on Mitropoleos St. The police patrols keep scaring them off and sometimes, the “hide and seek” gets rough and there are injuries and arrests. In fact, recent policy seems to consist in pushing them out of the commercial centre.
The area below Omonoia Square is like a separate zone. Citizens avoid crossing the boundary:
PEOPLE AND TRASH LITTER THE STREETS – CLOSED BUILDINGS – SHOPS THAT BARELY FUNCTION – WAREHOUSES – JUNKIES LURCHING – PAPER BOXES AND A SENSE OF DANGER – AGGLOMERATION OF HUNGRY VAGRANT SCAVENGERS
We are still waiting for any sign of an official immigration policy to tackle the long list of pressing issues. Our top priorities should be 1)the creation of infrastructures for the humane reception of people and 2)providing efficient services and procedures with regard to residence permits and naturalization. City planning interventions can follow.
However, we are witnessing more delays and no solutions for people who have entered the country without legal papers and for asylum seekers whose applications very rarely succeed. Moreover, unlike other western countries with more experience and better organization, here there is not even a proper path for those who would like to become integrated.
The borders that migrants cross when they embark on their journey, keep following them in perpetuity, fragmenting and dividing every day of their lives. The multiplication of boundaries has become an outright symptom of life in Athens with all the accessory phenomena of marginalization and rejection that facilitate the abject exploitation of “illegal” immigrants. Usually, this can be the «training» period for their subsequent exploitation in other European cities. We can also deduce different networks that separate their prey on the basis of skin colour. Obviously, it is the systemic demand for very cheap manual labour that promotes the perpetuation of the existence of such indigence.
Alternative theatrical scenes like Attis or Thission seem completely naturalized here as the «play» is unmistakably connected with the raw and illusive reality outside. In fact, the «outside» functions like a metaphor. The spectators experience both the internal and the external theatre as a continuous and interactive proximity with a positive remainder.
By contrast, the National Theatre seems huge but weightless, completely revamped in the midst of the problem. For all its majestic architecture it is strictly delimitated. Drug dealers and users stalk its periphery. When you walk in that direction below Omonoia Square you get a taste of hell. The lurking shadows of strangers, an army of police, people arrested a block away, a sea of loitering men, especially Pakistanis and Africans. As we entered and sat in the lobby it felt like an oasis. We could still see the foreigners through the windows. (Thursday, 15th April, 2.30pm). The director’s office was at the back of the building. There was a security guard. The architecture was admirable but the contrast of such a majestic space with its surroundings was even more striking.
Once more, we need to set our priorities. Crime and drugs must be first dealt with and then architects can intervene. As it is, there is nothing one can do.
Art galleries in the area are like islands, totally disconnected.
The space is fragmented.
The upper middle class people who came to live in the centre now seem cornered. The luxury housing was meant to attract high-income buyers. However, the situation has anything but improved: the problem worsens as the contrast between the rich and the poor increases.
The construction of luxury homes has mostly been taking place in Metaxourgeio (the GEK building) and in Gazi (Lofts). There are also renovations of neoclassical buildings or older industrial ones. The privileged homeowners are not comfortable to walk in the street. The modern obsession with security has taken root here together with social isolation.
Unfortunately, the different public agencies do not communicate and have no common policy. Despite the existence of many studies, none seem to have materialized.
This condition of transformation has led to «the unavoidable collision with those who are different. The fact remains that people have complex lives and through their action they infuse their ideas and beliefs into their surroundings. The political space results precisely from this negotiation between the personal and the social, between the individual and the collective.» Architects insist obsessively on the control of space through their constructions and this often leads them to become allied with investors. It is what happened in the case of the contest for the student residence in the area of Metaxourgeio. By contrast, more subtle and inventive practices that transcend boundaries can provide tools and critical methods that enable us to advance further in the direction of creative problem solving and away from routine administration. By revealing the political character of space, we learn how to deal with the complex and unpredictable lives of the people of our city.
We need to develop symbolic practices on the ground: at the places where communities come into everyday contact, on the street, in small neighbourhood shops, at the open-air markets. The dynamics of breaking down barriers are crucial. Art as a practice with immense potentialities is particularly adapted to this purpose. Despite the fact that in the area in question, art -in the form of art galleries- appears disconnected, we can always draw ideas from a variety of contemporary art practices. Such formative action can provide us with concrete examples of social ecology and lead to comprehensive programs for the area. On the basis of territorial justice, communities could come closer. As the whole spectrum of social processes comes to light, we would be able to envisage the rehabilitation of balance in an urban space that is so heavily charged with meaning.
Architecture and Site-specific art
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Guattari Felix, Les trois ecologies, Galilee, Paris, 1991
Smithson Robert, The museum of contemporary art, Los Angeles, 2004
Negri Antonio and Hardt Mickael, Commonwealth, Belknap Harvard 2009
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Tzirtzilaki Eleni, Dis-placed. Urban nomads in the metropolis. Contemporary issues concerning movement, the city and space (Εκ-τοπισμένοι. Αστικοί νομάδες στις μητροπόλεις.Σύγχρονα ζητήματα για τη μετακίνηση, την πόλη και τον χώρο)
Travel space architecture, edited by Jilly Traganou and Miodrag Mitrasinovic, Ashgate 2009, (Athens city of the displaced: Notes from the field, Eleni Tzirtzilaki)
On the map, the “invisible city” is marked with red. The displaced urban nomads originally find shelter in this area in appalling conditions. Later they move on to settle in surrounding areas where conditions are better and where they engage in all the activities we have referred to.
The neighbourhoods have been marked as follows: blue colour for Psirri, brown for Metaxourgeio/Kerameikos, grey for Gazi. It must be noted that all these areas are considerably rich in archaeological wealth.