Since 2009, when Greece slid into crisis mode, most people have associated Athens with images of violent demonstrations and police brutality, a city burned and destroyed on a regular basis.
The crisis has undeniably brought dramatic changes to the city’s life: Shops are closing in quick succession, leaving behind a sense of abandonment and desolation, people, newly evicted from their houses, fill the streets and form a new social class of the homeless, while youth unemployment skyrockets to 65 % – this year, many young Greeks have been forced to leave their country.
Yet while things don’t really look too good, these gloomy sights are counterbalanced by a rise in citizens’ initiatives and inspiring ideas to reclaim the streets of the Greek capital. The Omikron Project, for example, documents the ongoing efforts of existing grassroots movements to prove that Greeks are not the lazy coffee drinkers that mainstream media make them out to be. What is difficult for one is easier for many – and young Athenians know that they have to take matters into their own hands. With this in mind, the city’s cultural and social life has relocated to the streets.
Until last November, Pittaki Street was a desolate narrow entryway to the Psyrri district in the heart of the city. Until the local Synoikia (=neighborhood) project took over, that is. In collaboration with urban regeneration cluster Imagine the City the creative lighting group Beforelight invited local residents to donate their old lighting fixtures. An abandoned shop on the street was turned into a bustling workshop where Beforelight repaired the lamps with the help of many volunteers and finally strung them up on the street, creating a bright canopy and a home-like atmosphere. The collaborative project was launched with a big street party and soon became a secret landmark, attracting people from all over the Athens.
Synoiki Pittaki inspired ATA – Alternative Tours of Athens to bring their own art to the streets. Just two blocks down, the initiative launched an open invitation to paint Aischylou Street with images of the history of troublemakers on the fringes of society who used to thrive in this area during the second half of the 19th century. More than fifteen street artists contributed to this transformation from street to public gallery space, supported by local residents and shopkeepers. Naturally, this provided the crowd with another reason to throw a rousing street party!
Residents of another central Athenian neighborhood also proved very active – and inspired. The historic Metaxourgeio district, characterized by a very traditional take on urban Athens, currently plays host to a very diverse population of young creatives, immigrants, brothels, bars, and art galleries. Over the last few years, this neighborhood has hosted Greece’s most original carnival, organized collectively by local residents via a blog and social media, yet without any financial support from the municipality or other sponsors. Carnival floats are constructed from re-used waste, while handmade costumes and improvised make-up result in an imaginative, colorful parade sweeping through the area. Hosting such a diverse and bustling crowd not only portrays the neighborhood in a radically different light from its negative media image, but also demonstrates a novel way of public engagement, based on collective actions and human interaction.
Another recent popular celebration, the Festival of Colors at the end of May, set out to “make the area beautiful to prepare it for future investors” – thus mocking the official gentrification thrust of encouraging private investments in luxury properties. Inspired by a traditional Indian celebration, the Metaxourgeio Festival of Colors sees the people who live, work, and create in this neighborhood focusing their energy on a bold and non-commercial re-appropriation of public space. Accompanied by the sounds of various musicians, people enjoyed two days of open workshops, graffiti painting, and flower planting – all culminating in a spectacular battle of colors in the district’s central square.
It seems that, in times of crisis, Athens is more creative than ever. Using love and positivity as their only driving force, activists and small initiatives help to re-establish the city’s cultural map and provide small boosts of optimism to the capital’s everyday life.
Text by Cristina Ampatzidou
All photos, including the header image, by Alexandros Manopoulos