Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The portrait of the city as a burnt-out hellscape has little basis in reality.
ATHENS -- Athens has been getting gruesome press recently. In American coverage of Greece’s crisis, the country’s capital has been portrayed as a godforsaken wasteland, as fun-filled as a penal colony and as charming as a cauldron of boiling pitch. The New York Times (which is publishing ample Euro crisis poverty porn at the moment) has variously described it as "tottering on the edge of complete dysfunction," and in another piece, as recalling the last days of Pompeii (perhaps they have advanced eruption warnings I’m not privy to?). The Atlantic Cities has partly echoed this relentlessly bleak portrait, in an otherwise excellent article published here recently that posited "whole neighborhoods are now all but abandoned to squatters and rioters."
To anyone familiar with Athens, this picture is a little bizarre. It certainly doesn’t represent the stressed but bustling, fully functioning city I saw on a recent return visit there with my Greek partner. Although it’s under severe strain, the city is a resilient place. In fact, given how dire Greece’s situation is, one of its paradoxes is that it still appears so normal, with cafes, bars, museums and theaters still full as if nothing had changed.
Certainly times are tough in Athens. Some already rough areas are increasingly busy with homeless and junkies, looking more lost than anyone I have ever seen before. Likewise, many people are desperate for a quick buck. The friend we stayed with had recently had her building’s brass door handles stolen, likely to sell on as scrap – not something I expect happens much in Geneva. But faced with grueling difficulties, Athenians are adapting, finding new ways to get by, help each other out and even enjoy themselves in what remains a strikingly lively, vibrant city.
This isn’t so surprising, given that Athens has long had qualities worth emulating. In many ways, the city cleaves closely to a Jane Jacobs-ish high density ideal, though as this panorama shows, if you want to love the city it helps if you like concrete. Many of its high density neighborhoods are mixed use, with courtyards of offices and workshops often taken over at night by bars, meaning the streets stay busy without disturbing early risers’ sleep. The city’s often narrow streets (which deter excessive car use) are attractively alive day and night almost year round with people of all ages, making Athens still surprisingly safe and well monitored for a city supposedly hurtling towards Armageddon.
This public life remains vibrant, though people are now hunting around for cheaper alternatives. To cut costs, more people are now socializing in Kafeneia, basic, affordable neighborhood cafés previously considered the preserve of older working class men. These are often now so full with hipsters that you feel for their regulars. Others are giving up cafes altogether and taking to the sidewalks to drink and socialize. Some outdoor spots, like this one have become newly fashionable, with people gathering nightly and even setting up screens and projectors for outdoor movies.
More formal culture is also thriving to an extent, despite intense pressure. While money is tight, museum attendance (often free) is up, and Greece’s excellent National Theatre is going through a particularly strong period. Rather than burying itself reassuringly in the ancient Greek repertoire, the theater is currently staging a season called "What is our Homeland?" which focuses on modern and contemporary Greek drama and invites interesting, difficult questions about the legacies of the country’s recent past. This reflex spreads across Athens’ cultural scene and is sparking interest in audiences looking for answers. As Myrsini Pichou, who works at Athens University’s History Museum puts it:
I think that Greek people want to know what went wrong with the current situation and to learn about things from the recent past that make them think, or feel proud as Greeks. It’s popular for museums to organize exhibitions with themes from the 19th and 20th centuries, as Pericles' Athens now seems too far back. I suppose we’re searching for our 21st century identity as well.
Athenians are also stretching their means by using websites and alternative networks that provide free or reduced rate access to events, services and goods. Some projects of this type (such as this) are a little crunchy, but even the rather patrician Benaki Museum now has the website Forfree.gr as their communication sponsor, which is a bit like Groupon sponsoring New York’s Frick Collection.
It would be callous to suggest that because Athens is still lively, the city is still fine. Living standards are worsening with few chances of improvement, while the city is increasingly prey to an (as yet small) blood-hungry, hysterical extreme right faction feeding on fear and Greece’s status as a bottleneck for migrants trying to enter the EU. While strong family networks help (Greeks have long been wary of relying on the state alone) and some landlords are cutting their losses by offering apartments for the price of (punishingly high) property taxes alone, there is still a palpable sense of hope being eroded.
It could be argued that the city’s calm periods, as well as its occasional unrest, are the product of anxiety (though even with demonstrations and strikes over the past week the city has proved calmer than turbulent Madrid). As Athenian lawyer Elias Kontakos told me:
Many Athenians are in fear. They feel that if they protest the current situation, their protests will be co-opted by the far left, or be used by Neo-Nazis as an argument for something ridiculous, like an immigrant tax. With a media strongly linked to the political establishment also hyping the dangers of protest, a lot of people stay calm simply because they feel there is no alternative.
It’s hardly encouraging to learn that even the city’s relative calm and normality could possibly be the product of fear. It’s still misleading and potentially harmful, however, to present Athens as a wasteland whose woes can be conveniently read on every street corner. With 7,000 pretty turbulent years already behind it, Athens is nothing if not a survivor.
Top image: Tourists walk past a sleeping homeless man in Athens. Photo by Yannis Behrakis/Reuters