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Athens, a flourishing polis

Amid the crisis, the Athens city council won the Bloomberg Philanthropy sustainable development and EFTA solidarity awards. 

Vassilis C. Karamitsanis
24 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

Athens, Port of Piraeus.

Athens, Port of Piraeus. Flickr/Steve Moses. All rights reserved.I am proud to say that I was born, raised and have lived nearly all my life in Athens, the world’s oldest local democracy. Everyday experience of living in the Greek capital is now far from enjoying a "flourishing city". For more than six years now, our city, and the entire country to a somewhat lesser extent, have been going though a deep, multifaceted and greatly depressing crisis. Since 2009, the city has been leading a stampede towards depreciation, social erosion and financial decay. 

During this period, which continues to this day, Athens has lost most of the recent shine attained during the 2004 Olympics and the steady economic and social growth achieved over the past three decades. However, nobody had very high expectations that the city to improve that fast or that much in terms of its standard of living and functionality, especially if you look back to the 1980’s, the years I was at elementary school. Athens was a post-industrial, grey Mediterranean anarchic megapolis dogged with environmental problems and infrastructure deficiencies. 

The absence of a modern transport network gave rise to unending traffic jams, an urban airport synonymous with tourist stress and delays, a heavily polluted coastline and the notorious smog in the city's atmosphere, These were an integral part of my Athenian childhood. In addition, the massive exit of wealthy and educated Athenians to the suburbs left our downtown lifeless and unfriendly to visitors with quite a number of sights and museums in a blatantly neglected state. A Balkan metropolis without even a proper concert or congress hall encouraged tourists to treat it more like a flight stopover on the way to the Greek isles than a city of international historical and cultural significance.

The beginning of the 1990’s was a turning point for Athens. Disappointing everyday conditions led to a push for change, further Greek integration into European structures and a slightly new approach among the country's politicians led to substantial improvements in many of the city's functions, its environment and international image. This was unprecedented in Greece's modern history and remains so. 

The decade opened with the inauguration of a modern large-scale hall for public functions, the renowned Megaron. Biological sewage waist purification plants installed in the vicinity of the Revythoussa islet, in combination with a full ban on any disposal into the Greek seas resulted in safe-to-swim, clean sea waters alongside the Athenian Riviera. Unleaded-only fuels for vehicles nationwide alongside enforced closure of industries around the city's agglomeration have unveiled anew the famous crispy-clear, bluest Athenian sky. 

However, only in 1997 when Athens succeeded in its bid to host the Summer Olympics did the motor for change really become as fast and as coordinated as it needed to be. An urban rail network of five new lines, an urban motorway crossing the city and leading to a new state-of-the-art airport, extensive downtown remodeling and new constructions all over the wider Attica region were planned, and due to be delivered by 2004. Despite controversies and much negative publicity in the global media, the Games were a big success for the city and the world encountered a wholly new, shiny and optimistic metropolis.

This was exactly the time that the city should have begun work on its Olympic legacy future planning; defining its new major goals; drawing up its future towards maintaining the many improvements and global attention so far achieved. 

But following the Games and a government change, moving power from social democrats into the hands of the centre-right, this window of opportunity for Athens slid by as if it was frozen in time. For over four years, laurel wreaths dried out, pharaonic buildings made for the Games found no new users, the country seemed incapable of maintaining the city's dramatic upgrading that had cost so much and burdened Greece's national debt until it reached stellar heights. The echoes of the world financial crisis erupting during summer 2008 left Athens serene and inactive. The nation's widespread belief was that the Greek banking sector was perfectly safe and our national economy strong enough to stay untouched.

A theoretically random event served as the trigger to our very own crisis and the beginning of Athens' long-lasting downturn: two-weeks of extremely violent riots took place as a result of the deadly shooting of an adolescent by a police officer on 5 December 2008. There was extensive damage done and looting of public and private property. The city experienced some if its darkest days, while every subsequent anniversary of the riots has proven a nightmare for the city council and the police forces, due to violent demonstrations and destruction incurred albeit on a smaller scale than at the initial event. 

As a result, Athenians got used to living with the fear of violence from  extreme-left or anarchist groups, decaying urban infrastructure, constantly vandalised public buildings and no large-scale improvement programme outlined for the foreseeable future. The deep recession added social erosion phenomena, with many people living in poverty and homelessness, and desperate migrants from the region's devastated Muslim countries settling in the city's downtown. All of this has resulted in a situation where a flourishing Athens could only sound like an oxymoron.

Let's take a closer look, though. Through the crisis years in Athens, seven new metro stations have been put into operation, while the large plan of extensions for both metro and tramlines has begun. The city has added a top-notch archaeological museum hosting the Acropolis exhibits, making the claim on repatriating the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum more convincing than ever. 

Meanwhile, a state contemporary art museum is  (almost) ready to open in the old downtown Fix Brewery and an over 500 million euro new National Opera and Library premises and urban park project in the city's seafront will be delivered by early 2016. 

Solidarity structures for the crisis victims have been popping up around the city and its surroundings. Amid the crisis, the Athens city council won the Bloomberg Philanthropy sustainable development and the EFTA solidarity awards; their pecuniary prizes are wholly dedicated to the city’s cohesion action plan for the victims of crisis, i.e our homeless, unemployed, drug addicted, impoverished etc fellow-citizens. 

The private sector has been impressively active at the same time. Numerous NGO’s, humanitarian initiatives, sociopolitical think-tanks and many citizen groups have taken action towards making Athens a more just and happy place to be. As an example, Atenistas , a volunteer group of over 5000 Athenians has undertaken actions ranging from anti-tagging campaigns and free archaeological tours for local people and visitors, to anti-racist events and numerous humanitarian interventions.

Surprisingly, while the debt crisis is still hitting the nation, Athens has revamped itself over the past two years as a tourist destination. The city's port in Piraeus is impressively growing in both freight and cruise traffic, thanks to a huge Chinese investment and the cruise market liberalisation both launched in 2010. On top of this, after some years of post-Olympic decay, foreign traffic at the Venizelos airport has reached record density since its opening in 2001.

Let's face it: Athens, like no other city in Europe, has experienced the corrosive impact of the crisis in its economy, its infrastructure, and its society. Its skin and social texture has been changed forever. Life will never be as it used to be. That's maybe the reason why Athenians, both those born Greek or otherwise, have started on such a scale to think afresh, and to act differently. If you look beyond the traumatised city of news reports and media stereotypes, you will definitely see a city, but a vibrant urban society eager to redefine prosperity, to reinvent the Greek capital as a viable, yet "flourishing city" in the new era. 

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