Crisis is an unlikely decentralization factor

Greece’s provincial towns and villages are seeing new pupils in their schoolrooms, and fresh businesses are springing up in response to a recession that is bordering on depression, as the financial crisis seems to be the catalyst for the decentralization that Athens and the country in general desperately need.

The well-known “brain drain” aside, with many bright young Greeks emigrating to other countries to get a job, a small but increasing number of young people from the capital are looking to the Greek regions their parents came from and heading back there in an effort to combine a better living in the midst of the crisis with the quality of life they had always dreamt of. This may well prove to be the opportunity for provincial areas of this country where the focus tends to be centered around the capital to permanently regain some of the vivacity they only enjoy in the summer thanks to tourism.

Athens has grown way beyond its capacity, starting from the first industrial efforts at the end of the 19th century, to the influx of refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s, to the swelling of the capital due to internal migration from the provinces in the 1950s and 60s, and then to the constant influx of foreign immigrants from 1990 to 2010.

In all those decades, no coherent, targeted policy was formulated for the decentralization of the Greek state so as to relieve the capital of its excess population and revive the depopulated countryside that has been in decay. Some timid efforts to transfer state agencies and ministries outside Athens met with huge reactions by vested interests, including unions.

And yet the centrifugal forces of the current crisis appear to be working their magic, in the face of no real incentives for decentralization by the state. Angelos, a 35-year-old graphic designer, realized that jobs were being lost every day in Athens as the city’s economy continued to hemorrhage. So, a few months ago, he and his partner, Maria, moved to his ancestral home on Spetses, a popular holiday island off the coast of the eastern Peloponnese, and open a toy shop that would offer quality products and fill a market niche there. They have not regretted the decision.

“We just thought of filling a gap in the local market and it is paying off, for now. The quality of life is so much better here, you do not need to queue for hours in the bank and you are in contact with nature,” says Angelos. “There are many problems, too, but they are not insurmountable,” he adds, suggesting that he is also considering opening a second shop if he identifies another niche in the Spetses market.

Marikaity, a 39-year-old mother of two, also moved away from Piraeus for the first time in her life to live on Spetses with her children. “When the crisis shut down the private school my children went to, I had two options: to send them to a state school in Piraeus or on Spetses,” where her father hails from. “I chose the latter,” she says, and is determined to explore the opportunities mushroom cultivation on the island may offer.

Even wealthier Athenians with houses on the island now come for the weekend during the fall and the spring. “They used to snub their houses on Spetses, opting instead to go for a city break abroad, but the crisis has forced them to return here,” says Angelos. “That is also going to liven things up in the winter, I hope. But I will only be sure about that, and whether we did well to move here, when this winter ends.”

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