NEWS

The great expectations of Athens

One quiet evening a few weeks ago I was walking along Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. The refurbished Hotel Grande Bretagne gleamed in the distance, to my right were the spruced-up facades of the Foreign Ministry (pale pistachio) and the Egyptian Embassy, which revealed a small but cheery and well-tended garden. I know those moment of beauty were an illusion, as we all do; only the cool breeze and the dusk bore the stamp of a sweet Athenian evening. Everything else – the upper-class swank of the hotel, the heavy metal doors of the refurbished mansions, and the scent of the flowers – were all a little Athenian falsehood. Behind Syntagma Square there were cracked sidewalks, holes and billboards. And work sites, everywhere, small and large; on Mitropoleos, Kolokotronis, Pericleous, Apollonos and Aeolou, involving pedestrianization, widening, restoration of buildings, and embellishment. The breeze and the dust mixed with the car horns and the jackhammers. Athens, 15 months before the 2004 Olympic Games, and it seems to have just realized how little time is left, and the distance it still has to travel. The image is repeated throughout Attica, and yet most people have their doubts; a cloud of suspicion and disbelief floats over the city. Are the Games Athens’s great chance or not? And if so, are we somehow letting it slip through our hands? Anti-Athenian climate When the capital city won its bid to hold the Games, old rivalries came to the surface, centering on the cost of the enterprise. Was it worth a huge investment in Athens or was it just a costly chimera? In other words, was it worth dealing with Athens? This a priori rejection of the prospect offered by the Games is not unconnected with the climate of hostility toward Athens that developed in the late 1970s, when the opposition of the time adopted an anti-Athenian, pro-rural rhetoric which might be summed up in the slogan of decentralization. In the first years after the return to democratic rule in 1974, Athens represented the political establishment of the time, the entrepreneurial elite with roots in the construction boom at the time when Constantine Karamanlis was public works minister and was thus an easy target. Meanwhile, the glamour of the 1960s had faded and the first problems were starting to appear. The outcome was that the PASOK government abandoned all the major projects which had been announced for the capital, and the Athenian problem worsened dramatically. It wasn’t until the environmental crisis, the worst aspect of which was the incessant smog, that everyone realized that the decline of Athens had gone way beyond any reasonable prediction and that its perpetuation was a matter of national concern. The current enhancement of Athens – which is certainly scandalous by the standards of the first PASOK government under Andreas Papandreou – and the two bids to hold the Olympic Games (for 1996 and 2004), should perhaps be linked to the re-evaluation of the crucial role of the capital as the only national symbol in a Greek state that was called on to redefine its position in a world without the stability of the Cold War era. For better or for worse, and despite its notorious problems, Athens remains the only Greek city that possesses all the prerequisites, at a symbolic level, which allow it to play the competitive game that has developed among big cities in recent years. And that is due, it must be admitted, to the golden legacy of classical antiquity, which is cashed in on at every opportunity (though for how much longer, one wonders). There’s no need to look any further: Think of the choice of the Ancient Agora for the historic European enlargement ceremony a couple of weeks ago. New mentality Though vestiges of anti-Athenian rhetoric persevere, winning the bid to hold the Games – together with a series of important demographic, social and cultural factors – has helped contribute to the development of a decidedly more positive attitude toward the city. It’s worth recalling that today’s 40-year-olds are the first generation of Athenians of whom the overwhelming majority were born and bred in Athens, and who are, to a large extent, free of the nostalgia of the birthplace and the mentality it entails (hostility, hatred or indifference). As time passes, the urban experience will affect more and more people. In a few years, Athenians aged 20-22 will start working, young people who take for granted the presence of the metro and see driving into the city center as a tasteless joke (at least one hopes so). These are all-powerful factors contributing to a new mentality which may be capable of laying the foundations for the much-hyped rebirth of Athens. Olympic ‘catalyst’ But the serious delay in starting preparations for the Olympics and a painful awareness of the immensity of the endeavor have resulted in the loss of much of the initial enthusiasm. On the other hand, it is almost certain that as the summer of 2004 approaches and the works become visible, the climate will change. It is certain that, thanks to the Games, two important roads have been built in Athens, and, above all, the road to the sea. Retrieving the seafront from Glyfada to Piraeus is a major gain. And hundreds of hectares of open space are being handed over to the public following the closure of the airport at Hellenikon and the move of the hippodrome from Kallithea. Major public transport works have been expedited or begun on the occasion of the Games, and the urban refurbishment currently under way will greatly improve the image and the functionality of downtown Athens. «The Games will be a catalyst for Athens,» Costas Kartalis, Olympic Games general secretary at the Culture Ministry, told Kathimerini. Kartalis labels «utopians» those who believe Athens will solve within a few years the problems that have been mounting up for decades. He believes that Athens is being «tidied up» on the occasion of the Games, and that chronic problems are being sorted out, thus creating a new climate. The work Apart from the large and showy works, there are numerous small-scale projects in the greatest refurbishment project Athens has ever known. The Public Works Ministry (YPEHODE) has been allocated the lion’s share of them: doing up major roads and traffic arteries (Kifissias, Vassilissis Sofias, Ardittou, Syngrou, Alexandras, Kavalas and Kifissou avenues, Petrou Ralli, Panepistimiou and Patission streets, squares (Kolonaki, Exarchia, Karaiskaki, and Academias), green spaces (the National Gardens and Pedion tou Areos), the historic center of Piraeus (including the refurbishment of Lambraki Avenue and Bouboulina Street), the archaeological park at the city gates of Piraeus (to highlight the monument of the city’s ancient twin gates), to name just some of the most important. In the next few weeks, the City of Athens will be starting out in Mavili, Koliatsou and Plastira squares with its ambitious project of cleaning thousands of apartment block facades (3,000 buildings by August 2004). In addition, 70 percent of the sidewalks are to be cleaned, and there is an agreement with YPEHODE to carry out works funded by the municipality. This category includes refurbishment of Academias, Vouliagmenis, and Lykavittou streets near the National Archaeological Museum. Finally, one realizes, the Olympic Games are not the end of the story, as many believed, but just the beginning.