By Apostolos Lakasas
A squeeze of young people in their late teens and early 20s ascend the escalator leading out of the Kerameikos metro station. It is Saturday night and soon they will be lost in the throngs that descend on the central Athenian neighborhoods of Kerameikos and Gazi every weekend, disappearing into trendy bars, cafes, galleries and restaurants.
Gazohori, as the two adjacent neighborhoods have come to be collectively known, is abuzz with life breathed in by the dictates of what is cool right now. The industrial element that has marked the area for the last 150 years thanks to the old gasworks melds well with new minimalist constructions as they stand together on the solid bedrock of the neighborhood’s long history.
Run-down shacks and decrepit sheds, signs of desertion, poverty and degradation, hunger and death: This is where it started 150 years ago for a neighborhood that has today evolved into one of Athens hottest spots. The history of Gazohori – “Gas-village” – unfolds in the pages of a recent Greek study titled “Gazi 1900-60: The Socio-Professional Evolution of a Neighborhood,” written by associate professor at Athens University Eugenia Bournova, historian Myrto Dimitropoulou and cartographer-geographer Stavros Nikiforos Spyrellis from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France.
Gazi was included in the town plan in 1880, with its form being determined by pre-existing roads. Its main landmark was the gas plant on present-day Pireos Street, now a cultural complex. Its boundaries were not clearly defined, so the researchers have delineated the neighborhood as occupying the area between Pireos, Constantinoupoleos, Petrou Ralli and Iera Odos streets. On the right-hand side of Pireos Street south of Omonia Square, and today the location of numerous restaurants and theaters, at the time the area contained nothing but the gasworks.
On the other hand, Gazi was not part of one single parish – the churches of Aghios Vassileios Rouf and Aghia Triada Kerameikou were on opposite sides of the settlement but neither was actually inside its boundaries – a fact that actually enhanced its residents’ sense of community. Gazi also has just one square: Koulouri, on the junction of Stratonikis, Elasidon and Orefeos streets.
In 1910 the area had an all-male population of 127 residents. According to sources from that time, the census did not include women or gas workers, so the actual number would have been much higher. The most prominent members of the community, the elite, comprised three lawyers and the factory inspector. Of the 127 registered residents, most (80) were craftsmen and manufacturers, eight were carriage drivers and barbers, six were registered as gardeners or farmers and four ran grocery and tobacco shops. The area had been industrial ever since the turn of the 20th century, after which the influx of refugees in the wake of the Asia Minor Catastrophe saw its population rise, along with its professionals, who came to include metal workers and engineers, as well as manufacturers of furniture, barrels, horse-drawn carriages etc. According to data from 1939, Gazi had by then acquired four elementary schools, while its burgeoning population also promoted a boom in the food sector, with new eateries, wine shops and cafes popping up in the area. This also led to more doctors and dentists setting up shop there, while the same data point to the existence of a pharmacy, a midwife, an open-air cinema, a refreshment stand and a laundry that used an electric washing machine.
In the winter of 1941-42 65 residents of Gazi died of starvation. There followed a large wave of emigration in line with developments in the rest of Greece, then a period of growth, the dictatorship and the return to democracy. Images of workers with drawn faces alternate with statistical facts in Bournova’s study, which she recently presented to a jam-packed auditorium in the Technopolis cultural complex.
So what is it that makes us look to the past?
“In the past few years there has been a revival of interest in history and especially on a community level as part of a general quest for constants, as the past is not just something that can be embellished, but is also a certainty, something that has already occurred, as opposed to a painful present and an uncertain future,” Bournova told Kathimerini.
“In order to ensure that this interest does not become a navel-gazing process or open to uncomfortably nationalistic interpretations, we must study the history of our country, through scientific research, so as to better understand how we got here. And it is possible that this will bring to the surface the changes that are needed,” she added.
“If the urban environment and the way of life of a city is built based solely on the interest of the individual and on the destruction of anything old, then the need for focus on the public good, solidarity and collective action becomes more than apparent,” Bournova said.