Essay published in MONU 19 (2013), pp.88-93.
On the 8th of December 2008, the Christmas tree at Syntagma square caught fire during a street protest. During the same evening, a new upscale shopping center was launched at the northern suburbs of the city. Visitors crowded the new mall while the central square at Syntagma was full of young people protesting for the murder of a 16-year-old schoolboy by a policeman. That was a critical moment in the recent history of Athens. The center of the city was transformed into a surreal dystopia once the outskirts established themselves as a shopper’s paradise.
These two events were interrelated and complementary. The dominance of consumerist ideology reached its climax during winter 2008 – 2009, just before the outburst of economic crisis. The significant protests of December 2008 marked the end of a short period of prosperity and optimism for the centre of Athens that started during the years of Olympic preparation. December 2008 was also the moment of awakening for the younger Greek generation, an outburst of anger against the ideals of the previous decade and the lack of prospects for their future.
The decentralization of Athens was a long-term political vision in response to the infrastructural problems of the city during post-war reconstruction. The concentration of public services in the center and the inadequacy of public transportation led to traffic congestion and created serious environmental concerns. The city has been constantly expanding since 19th century in response to the continuous growth of population. However, the diffusion of the city into the rural periphery reached its peak during the Olympic preparation. After the construction of major infrastructural works, such as the Athens Metro, the new International Airport and the new ring road of the greater Metropolitan area, the decentralization of the city would be finally achieved.
Since the 1990’s, traditional economic activities have slowly abandoned the historic centre of Athens. The last manufacturing activities either closed or left the area. Most high profile private companies moved along the avenues leading to the suburbs. Some public services, such as the Ministry of Education, moved into former Olympic facilities. Moreover, the construction of the new ring road encouraged the establishment of large shopping centers at the periphery, apparently against downtown commercial activities.
Suburban housing has been very popular in Athens since the formation of the upscale residential areas in the 1960’s. The economic growth of the early 2000’s gave the opportunity to the native middle-class population to pursue new lifestyles away from the historic center. Suburban residents sought substitutes for public spaces to the malls and multiplex cinemas that were created along the new infrastructure networks. The new commercial and leisure areas in proximity to the suburban areas formed the ideal environment for the middle class, in accordance with the consumerist ideals and standards of the lending-based economy in the 2000’s.
Incomplete Urban Renewal
The diffusion of Athens into the periphery created a major gap in the traditional center. Decentralization created opportunities for the new city contenders, such as the immigrant population, the emerging creative class and the leisure industry.
During the greatest part of the 20th century, Athens was a city with homogenous population and very small religious minorities. The first groups of immigrants arrived in Greece from Eastern Europe after 1989. Their social integration was harmonious as long as the economy maintained positive growth rates and offered new jobs. During the late 1990’s, the first ethnic groups created their communities in the abandoned central districts forming new diverse neighborhoods.
They were soon followed by the leisure industry that has responded very quickly to any important change at the center of Athens. Graffiti artists and the gay community have been the best trackers of downtown areas with urban potential. Many districts, which were abandoned by manufacturing activities or services, were soon transformed into hip areas filled with nightclubs, cafes and tavernas. At the same time, the vibrancy of these multicultural areas with colorful markets and ethnic restaurants attracted the new creative class of the city, mostly young, well educated, people that have lived in western metropolises, who set up their workspaces, design studios and art galleries there. New loft like apartments were soon created in order to satisfy the demand for downtown living in the “Athenian SoHo”.
This is a well known gentrification process in the history of cities. However, in the case of Athens, it was never completed. Even in the days of artificial economic growth, the local economy was not strong enough to sustain the creation of new residential areas. Furthermore, the outburst of the debt crisis cancelled any plan of development in the centre of Athens.
During the period of the Olympic preparation, the state implemented the major project of the unification of the archaeological sites of Athens. Part of the broader plan was the regeneration of the central public spaces of the city after the construction of the new metro stations. The success of the pedestrian ring road around Acropolis was not repeated in the central areas of the city. Unfortunately after the first failed attempt, the state cut the funding of the broader regeneration project, and the urban renewal plan for the center of Athens remained incomplete.