The little-known, abandoned heart of Athens

Most of us have had to drive through it at some time, if only on our way out of town for the weekend. Just a few minutes from the center of town, the area seems like another world away, although it contains much of the city’s commercial activity; and for most city residents it remains unknown, even hostile, territory. The Iera Odos (the ancient Sacred Way) and Kavalas, Aghias Annis, Spyrou Patsi, Marconi, and Orpheos streets are all part of Athens’s parallel universe – productive and lively, but also ugly and abandoned. If the area’s central avenues seem like a jungle, you need to have a strong survival instinct in its side streets. The closer you get, the larger the vehicles are. You realize you are there when you are suddenly surrounded by trucks – everything from vans to king-sized road hogs – with an almost complete absence of road signs and an atmosphere of decrepitude, noise and smog. And this is right at one of Athens’s main entry points. The Agricultural University on the Iera Odos is the only oasis in this grey wasteland, a precious green space engaged in an unequal battle with exhaust fumes. All our efforts are geared toward upgrading the entire area, said Andreas Karamanos, rector of the university. In 1993, when the National Bank decided to turn a 5.8 hectare property into green space, the university carried out the study for them. We were surprised to see that Attiko Metro took it over last year and turned it into a construction site, said Karamanos. As you drive down the Iera Odos, the next major road you come across is Spyrou Patsi. If it is the afternoon rush hour, it will be jammed with traffic. On both sides of the road are car repair shops that once upon a time must have been homes. In the middle of the road is a strip planted with trees. At one time it was probably a lovely main street through a traditional neighborhood. After the Agricultural University, the Iera Odos changes character. On the left are the ruined Softex factory, car repair and sales yards, storage places for construction material that can’t be found elsewhere, and trucking and other depots. Between Pireos Street and Marconi the area belongs to the Municipality of Athens, and from that point you are in Aegaleo. Marconi then becomes Aghias Annis Street, a main artery linking Kavalas Avenue with the national highway. Depots and transport companies proliferate in the surrounding side streets. Aghias Agnis is busy around the clock. At night the street lighting is poor, and in the mornings cars and trucks inch forward in long queues. The odd old house, abandoned, of course, or the occasional deserted garden are clues to the district’s former character. Now anarchy, dust, and garbage – lots of garbage – prevail. The Public Works Ministry plans to widen Aghias Annis between Kavalas and Petrou Ralli avenues and beyond Profitis Daniil, as well as Makryianni Street, which links the municipalities of Rendi and Tavros. Restoring Elaionas is the only hope Announcements of plans to restore the district of Elaionas, a 900-hectare area situated in five municipalities – Athens, Aghios Ioannis Rendis, Aegaleo, Peristeri and Tavros – were first issued in 1994. A presidential decree on the project was published in the Government Gazette in 1995, yet nothing has been done in the six intervening years. Improvements to Elaionas will only occur by gradually declaring areas to be reserved for green spaces, said the Agricultural University’s rector. According to the decree, new buildings can only be used for low or moderate intensity industry or manufacturing, and all existing tanneries, metal foundries, potteries and cement factories have to be moved elsewhere. Open spaces are to be characterized as community areas (including roads and parks) and public facilities, such as the metro. Reason for delays Representatives of the Organization of the City of Athens said the reason for the delay is the need for further studies which are currently being carried out. Kathimerini learned some changes being made to the plan will create even further delays. For the moment, there are urgent plans to widen Aghias Annis and Profitis Daniil streets. Change comes slowly when one is talking about a whole area, Kathimerini was told. The Public Works Ministry is responsible for widening central road arteries, the municipalities for side streets. Then there are the local residents’ wishes to consider. Community space will be landscaped according to the financial capabilities of each municipality. The expansion plan for Elaionas could be implemented locally by private individuals, as happened in Rendi, although the first instances of illegal construction have already been noted. Banned activities are taking the place of those that were told to move. One example is the Thrace Paper Mill on the Iera Odos which has been replaced by a wholesale press distribution company. Eftychios Georgakakis, technical adviser to Athens’s mayor, told Kathimerini that if someone implemented the presidential decree at the local level, the plan as a whole would not be implemented in such a way as to improve the entire area. Of the total 900 hectares, 200 come under the jurisdiction of the Athens Municipality. A lot of hope has been invested in extending the metro line along the Iera Odos as a way of improving the character of the area, as well as the construction of the intercity bus terminal.The metro station was to be built next to the old gas- works on Pireos Street until the Archaeological Society intervened and the station was moved about 300 meters. We then suggested that the area be turned into a park, with a garage underneath, said Georgakakis, although this requires a special legislative amendment. The situation today can only be described as tragic. Most streets are in a terrible state and there are very few traffic or street signs. You have to know where you are going. If you don’t, you have no business in this part of town. Drivers often have to negotiate an open parking lot or car repair shop to get where they want to go. Yet during the day, the area buzzes with life. It is interesting, weird, alive. But at night it is a different story. The streets are empty, no one is seen walking, and there are no sidewalks anyway. The darkness is terrifying and there have been reports of packs of dogs wandering about. Although police patrol the area 24 hours a day, and many factories have night watchmen, petty theft is rampant. As the local police told us, it is no place to go for a stroll. The law of patience We pave the roads ourselves. Naxos Street, right along its length, has been surfaced by private individuals, said Vassilis Samaras, the owner of a transport company in a side street off Marconi Street between Athinon Avenue and the Iera Odos. That, he said indicating a mountain of scrap metal, has been there for years. One’s first thought is that only a certain type of person would come down here more than once. You get used to it, said Panayiotis Tsilichristos, 26, a professional truck driver whose job brings him down here every day. People in the various jobs in the district have created their own microcosms with their own rules and regulations. Whoever comes here for the first time gets a shock, said Tsilichristos. Lots of people drive along the main roads every day, but they’ve never driven off into the side streets. If they ever try to take a short cut to avoid traffic, they go crazy. There are some laws that we respect. One of them is patience. We wait our turn. No one should honk their horn and no one does. Nor does anyone lose his temper. Otherwise, it would be madness. We are all ready to go over the edge, but we don’t, he said. The situation at the junction of Orpheos and Aghias Annis streets is typical. Enormous trucks have to make endless maneuvers to get around the sunken church of Aghia Triada. The sun beats down mercilessly. Yet there are no shouts of protest, despite our being here for hours. In any case, everyone knows nearly everyone else. And if I don’t recognize the person, I recognize the truck, said Tsilichristos. People find ways to adapt to their environment but the environment makes no effort in return. When it rains, there are puddles everywhere, said Samaras. There is only one garbage dumpster for so many factories and the garbage trucks park just down the road. The greatest problem is the lack of lighting. You are afraid to walk at night, only three kilometers from Omonia Square, he said. Things are getting worse. For Tsilichristos, one of the reasons for the lack of action is the involvement of so many municipalities and the fact that the factories are likely to move away.

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