Athens Untouched by Merkel’s Visit and Explosion of Bomb: 7 Urban Development Stories from the City (in images and words)

Kristine Sergejeva

By Kristine Sergejeva, on April 30th, 2014

> Read Kristine Sergejeva's articles

Athens (Greece) in April is sunny and vibrant. In the day after the explosion of the terrorist bomb, when the city is dispassionately looking forward to have on its grounds “THE enemy of Greek nation” Angela Merkel, my Greek colleague Nicholas (who happens to be not only the trainer of URBACT National Training Scheme but also a lecturer in cultural and tourism planning) is showing me not-yet-so-touristic neighborhoods of Athens – Psiri, Gazi, Metaxourgeion, Petralona, Kolonos. Changing, lively, intense, alternative, real, a bit trashy but tolerant, full with contrasts and street art (seems like a paradise for new hipsters and old hippies). Places, which many Greek people are still afraid to visit because just some years ago these were projected by the media as unsafe “ghettos” to be avoided, full with junkies and criminals (later when I return to my hotel, I also have a rather pleasant encounter with one nice junkie who asks me in a good English where I am coming from and, when I am explaining that I am from Latvia, suggests to put my photo camera back in the bag).

I am charmed and fascinated – both by how this city looks, as well as by the stories Nicholas is telling about his Athens. Almost every corner, every square or a piece of street art is a hero of some urban story – either from the past, present or the future. I am a curious eye trying to depict what I see in my photos, but he is the knowledge and the history – providing a meaning to everything what I perceive.

Here are the 7 outputs of this collaborative and international “story seeing-telling” effort: seven urban development stories of Athens in images and words. Images as viewed by outsider (me) and stories memorized and revealed by insider, Nicholas.

1. Walking in Psiri: An artists’ “village” within the city

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Not so far from the touristic quarters Plaka and Monastiraki one can walk in one of the most characteristic neighbourhoods of the city center of Athens, Psiri. Until the early 1980s it was associated with manufacturing (mainly leather processing), retail and crafts; elements that are still visible nowadays. Psiri can be characterized as a “transitional” area, as it lies between the commercial city center, the historical city and the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos, while its size, low buildings and population lead to the image of a “village within the city”. Its cultural regeneration in the late 1980s was initially based on an organically developed approach. “Off Broadway” theatre groups, galleries and artists created a unique atmosphere, at a time that the area still had a marginal status. The cheap rents, the old buildings that were being transformed into apartments or shops and the “bohemian” atmosphere started attracting various cultural users. Soon, however, due to the lack of state control the nighttime economy took over creating negative neighbourhood images (uncontrolled, fake, overcrowded, etc); since then “Psiri effect” is conceptualized as an example of poor urban planning.

Nowadays due to the financial crisis and the development of nearby Gazi as a leisure cluster, the nighttime economy has abandoned the area, which seems to have reached the end of its life cycle as a popular district to go out and is trying to reinvent itself. The “Empros” building can be seen as an indicator of the changes of Psiri over the years: an emblematic industrial building of 1933, it initially hosted the printing house of newspaper “Empros” which closed down, then in the late 80s it was leased to an actor who turned it into a theater hosting one of the most distinct theatre groups of Athens but after his death it has remained empty. Since 2011 it has been squatted by artists and local inhabitants; both the building and the neighbourhood are searching for a new identity…

2. The “Garlic lady” and the traditional shops

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Mrs Koula, originally from the North-eastern part of Greece, moved to Athens and has been selling fresh garlic in a small opening on Epicourou Street in Psiri for many years – lately she moved to a nearby shop with the support of her son. She forms part of the many shop-owners and craft-workers that give Psiri its particular attractive image. One can find a shop selling kitsch plastic flowers (which were probably fashionable in the 1960s…), a manufacturer that produces educational globes, a bouzouki repairer, skin processors etc. Obviously these will be gone in a few years as these people get their pension or get pushed out by new uses. Even worse, they could get “disneyfied” and become part of a tourist theme park (cities such as Barcelona and Prague have this kind of experience…). Still new cafes, small bars, shops that sell furniture, clothes, jewelry and art crafts seem to create new attractive images for Psiri and a walk during the morning hours through its shops and byzantine churches is definitely an aesthetic experience…

3. The Pittaki Street experiment and the growing citizens’ engagement

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A simple idea that turned into an urban “pop-up” success story… Just a few meters away from Monastiraki Square and the house where Lord Byron wrote his famous poem “Maid of Athens”, Pittaki Street, a narrow street in Psiri was transformed due to a unique idea. The project was simple but yet very effective: citizens were asked to bring old “vintage” lamps they didn’t use in order to create a lighting project for the street. Under the guidance of the architectural design group “Before Light” and the non-profit group “Imagine the City” Pittaki street’s installation has succeeded to change the image of the street in a positive way and attract wider attention.
It has to be noted that the financial crisis has led to the rise of a new conscience amongst Athenians as many groupings and initiatives reclaim public space and create new conditions of urban sociability. This rising citizens’ engagement is supported by the municipality through an innovative idea, the “Synathina” platform which is offering the opportunity to different NGOs and initiatives to network and make use of a renovated building outside the Varvakeios food market.

 

4. Varvakeios Food Market: authenticity and future plans

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The Varvakeios Municipal Food Market of Athens is hosted in an historical building on Athinas Street since the end of the 19th century and hasn’t changed a lot over the years. It lies between the “hip” bars and restaurants of Agias Eirinis Street, the City Hall, Psiri and the degraded areas around Omonia Square – consisting one of the most fascinating areas of the city center. It is a meeting point for many Athenians who traditionally do their groceries here, looking for the best deal (e.g. a lamb’s head for their soup for 1 Euro…), but lately it has also become a place for newcomers to the city: around the market one can find shops with imported goods from Egypt, from Poland, from India and elsewhere; these also serve as meeting points.

Unlike examples such as the Boqueria or Santa Caterina markets in Barcelona, Varvakeios is a non-touristic market with many authentic elements; yet there is a need to confront the problems it faces, to ensure the high quality and variety of products and to boost its role as a place of social interaction. Through the URBACT Markets project, the Region of Attica as project partner is trying to create the conditions to plan the next steps for the future of the food market and create consensus amongst different stakeholders – attitudes towards change are not always positive… Some interesting interventions are taking place here in an attempt to try to restore faith in the area – one shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the area after dark as photos of the interior of each shop have been adjusted on its facades creating a unique artistic installation….

5 – Athens as a an open air graffiti gallery

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Athens’ graffiti scene has been flourishing the last two decades and some of its street artists have gained recognition worldwide. Many buildings especially in the areas around Piraeus street and Exarcheia quarter are being used as canvasses, offering a unique outdoors “gallery walk”. Lately commissioned murals have started transforming the Athenian urban landscape creating some very interesting contrasts (don’t miss the one on Piraeus Street which is based on a painting by A. Durer). A recent article of the New York Times comments on the aesthetic and social aspects of graffiti in Athens.

 

6. Metaxourgeion: A changing, “alternative” neighbourhood


Metaxourgeion is currently the area witnessing rapid change – some call it the “new Psiri” not only because many of its artists and galleries have moved here, but also because it seems to be witnessing the same opportunities and dangers… The area still faces serious problems of degrading especially towards Omonia Square, but a walk around Avdi square will reveal a particularly charming alternative face of Athens… The Archaeological Unification project is expected to continue through the area, connecting Kerameikos with the Academy of Plato through a pedestrian network of streets and biking lanes. This is going to create a new tourist route in a “difficult” area and could probably lead to gentrification effects…. Metaxourgeion is also the neighbourhood in which a public-private initiative is expected to lead to cultural regeneration: a “visionary real estate developer” or an “art gentrifier” – depending on how one perceives it…-, who owns many of the buildings here is planning to turn the area into a vibrant cultural cluster with an art crafts market based on the support of the municipality and funding form Jessica initiative.

7. Plato’s Academy: Public park, business district or tourist destination?

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Plato’s Academy lies between a residential area and a post-industrial zone – hardly any tourist will reach this part of the city despite its symbolic significance. The site is open to the public (there is no ticket) and the most interesting element is that the archaeological park is integrated in the everyday life activities of the neighbourhood: events, meetings, open lunches and picnics are organized frequently by the inhabitants. Through the URBACT Sustainable Food project there are plans to create small herbal and tree gardens, while plants can function as mediums that connect locals and visitors to the history of the place, through the use of local plant varieties of Attica (thyme, hypericum, olive trees, fig trees, etc.) Such interventions are being planned in different parts of the city; due to the project food policy has entered the municipal policy agenda and will be prioritized in the next programming period (Greening Plato’s Academy and creating a communal garden with local vegetable, herb and tree varieties).

Lately Plato’s Academy is getting media attention: some years ago the Stock market moved to the area and now there are plans for developing more office space and commercial uses just beside the park. More particularly, according to the newspaper Kathimerini, a company which belongs to an international investment group, has been buying up plots on nearby Kifissou Avenue and is planning to develop a multi-level shopping and entertainment center -it will be named “Academy Gardens”. The inhabitants are concerned regarding its effects on the park and on the urban landscape.

 

By:

 

Kristine Sergejeva, URBACT Communication Manager

 

 

 

 

 

And

Nicholas Karachalis, Lecturer at the University of Thessaly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to “Athens Untouched by Merkel’s Visit and Explosion of Bomb: 7 Urban Development Stories from the City (in images and words)”

  1. Nick Bogiazides says:

    Perceptive eye / informed logos, reaching parts of Athens seasoned Athenians are unaware of.

  2. [...] Artículo y fotografías de Kristine Sergejeva, Responsable de Comunicación de URBACT, y Nicholas Karachalis, Profesor en la Universidad de Tesalia, escrito tras una visita a Atenas con motivo de una reunión de Puntos de Difusión Nacional de URBACT. Original disponible en inglés aquí. [...]

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