It takes quite an effort to remember what the building housing the Attikon and Apollon cinemas in downtown Athens looked like before it was torched during anti-austerity riots in 2012. Seven years have passed since then and it remains a scorched edifice, a witness of failed efforts to bring the cinemas back to life, becoming increasingly invisible in the city center.
The burned edifice has left a void that seems to “cut the city center in two,” as one of the candidates running for mayor of Athens told a residents’ meeting recently. Asked what he intends to do about it if he is elected in late May, he could not provide a clear answer as the matter is complicated by the involvement of various foundations and private individuals who have rights over the large building. He is not alone. Most candidates are talking about adopting an “aggressive instead of a defensive position” toward the myriad problems facing Athens. They talk about “activism” and plans to take serious action to upgrade the troubled areas around the National Archaeological Museum, the old Polytechnic, the Acropole Theater, the neighborhoods of Exarchia and Aghios Panteleimon, and Pedion tou Areos. They make all sorts of promises to improve sanitation and cleanliness, and all the other serious, impossible and thorny issues plaguing a downgraded European capital, but they never mention the Attikon and the Apollon.
The worst thing, however, is that the “disappearance” from the city’s cultural life of two historic cinemas that had such an important role in shaping it is going almost unnoticed. At the same meeting, one lady even proposed that the unsightly edifice should be shrouded in an attractive banner. She seemed to suggest that given how unlikely it is that they should be restored and reopened, we might as well make them look pretty. The point is that we’ve given up, we’ve come to terms with the loss.
That, however, is a defeat for the city, for the people who run it and for its residents.
In many different episodes of the battle relating to the building, two foundations have held a starring role: the Dekozi-Vourou, which owns the building, and the Vourou-Eftaxia, which runs the adjacent Museum of the City of Athens. Outgoing Mayor Giorgos Kaminis made several efforts to bridge the divide between the two parties and came close to a deal, but one of the two backed out at the last minute.
The issue of the two cinemas makes us wonder whether there is such a thing as the public interest in Greece. And, if so, how it can be mobilized from a legal standpoint? How can a building that is an asset to the city and a part of its memory be spared from the implacability of the foundations?
Athens will never get back on its feet when parts of the center are allowed to remain in darkness – scary and ugly. The politicians racing to lead it like to appear bold and determined – and they will only be perceived as such if they do not agree to cover up the city’s ills in pretty banners.