When I heard that one of the properties going under the hammer when foreclosures resumed last week was a maisonette, I couldn’t help but think this was the start of the last act of an era. The maisonette – a two-story structure, sometimes with a small patch of garden and occasionally a tiny swimming pool – was not just a symbol of the burgeoning middle class’s growing prosperity; it was also a symbol of Europeanization – proof that the village was behind us.
It took some 15 years after the end of the Nazi occupation for Greece to enter the era of the apartment building. In contrast to their pre-WWII predecessors – with their art nouveau and modernist details – the apartment blocks that erupted from the “antiparochi” system (whereby a contractor would build on small plots and give the owner a flat or two in lieu of money changing hands) were hasty affairs. Athens was built up summarily to host hundreds of thousands of internal migrants, people who by and large regarded the village left behind as their real home. Thus, the almost nomadic sparsity of the antiparochi apartment block.
It took a lot longer for Greece to acquire proper highways: It wasn’t, in fact, until 2001, when the first stretch of Attiki Odos was opened, followed a couple of years later by the Athens metro. The maisonette, of course, came before these other symbols of Europeanization, together with powerful cars whose drivers often had trouble navigating the country’s narrow roads. The maisonette was the middle class’s final frontier, its Far West. It was also responsible for the development of new suburbs, new roads and new water and sewage systems – as well as the desertion of much of downtown Athens.
Huge riots rocked Athens around this time in 2008, overpowering the state and flooding the streets with hooded gangs of youths in battle with a police force that had been castrated by the political leadership. Terrified, the government could only watch the destruction with the same lassitude it did the deadly Peloponnese fires the previous year. Destruction was regarded as a natural phenomenon and the progressive elite couldn’t come up with cliches to describe it fast enough, speaking of the “700-euro generation” and a “youth robbed of its future.” It was farcical. The youths destroying Athens were getting 700 euros in pocket money and wore expensive, fashionable shoes when they descended on the city center from the wealthier suburbs. These were kids who grew up in maisonettes and detested the city that had been left behind by their parents. They wanted to erase the last traces of the village, once and for all.
When Greece went bankrupt in 2010, the specter of the village started to gradually re-emerge. The abandonment of central Athens went hand-in-hand with skyrocketing unemployment, real estate prices plummeted, the central heating was turned off and borrowed money had to be returned. The maisonette ideology lost its credibility and the middle class that lived in such dwellings collapsed – just like the socialist regimes a couple of decades earlier.
Electronic property auctions are the final chapter of the maisonette era, of a Greece that lived its myth and is now trying to catch up with reality, panting with the effort.
The devastation of Greece is not just economic. It is the devastation of a way of life that was ideologically dominated by, among others, the maisonette.