City of Patras’s dreams turn to nightmares

Thirty months from today, the Peloponnesian city of Patras will become the Cultural Capital of Europe. Under normal circumstances, the city should be celebrating, be in a ferment of creativity, living its own renaissance at fever pitch and turning its dreams into reality. Quite the contrary. For anyone embroiled in this ambitious effort, the whole Cultural Capital affair has become something of a nightmare. Depressingly, history is repeating itself with an infuriating accuracy. It is only necessary to recall Thessaloniki as Cultural Capital of Europe, or the Olympic city of Athens. That Patras would be Cultural Capital in 2006 has been a matter of common knowledge since 1998. But no work toward making it one has been carried out. The only tangible signs of 2006 are the pre-election skirmishes carried out by the former and current municipal authorities, the candidacy application file (which finally received the European Union’s seal of approval in spring) and the technical program of the Patras Municipality. Outstanding issues run into the dozens. Coordinating body For example, a body to coordinate the whole project has not yet been set up. As for the head of that organization, it is as yet unknown whether he or she will be appointed by Athens or emerge via a competition, as the municipal authorities propose. The only sure thing is the resulting scramble for the posts of president and seats on the administrative council, locals contend. The names that have been bandied about are those of Panos Theodoridis (from Thessaloniki Cultural Capital) and Thanos Mikroutsikos (who successfully served the International Patras Festival). At the same time, there is a general sense that this is a major opportunity, a veritable gift to the port of Patras, which is going through one of its most difficult periods in recent history. The wave of factory closures in the 1990s has torn the social fabric, plunged the city into commercial stagnation and created a lackluster, sullen climate. The Cultural Capital institution gives Patras the chance to rediscover itsself, redefine its priorities and seek a new identity. A new identity With one eye on Glasgow (perhaps the most successful cultural capital of Europe), the attempt to outline Patras’s new identity envisaged a «touristic and cultural center» for the eastern Mediterranean. And it is true that «in the whole of Europe, an ever-growing number of traditionally industrial cities include culture in their restructuring policies. There are many examples of abandoned, once-thriving, industrial complexes that have been turned into alternative, multipurpose centers.» This is the common thread that could link Patras with other European cities. The stigma of a decaying industrial base could turn into a starting point for renewal. In just the last few years, on the outskirts of Patras, five powerful companies have either closed their factories or withdrawn from the city: These are Peiraiki-Patraiki, Ladopoulos, Misko, Pirelli and the Kritikos spinning mill. It is not difficult to see what that means for a city of 300,000 people. But Patras needs to look forward – neither underestimating current difficulties nor sinking into misery and inertia. And city authorities are right when they looks to culture «as a driving force, economically and socially speaking within contemporary European society, which secures identity, self-confidence and social acceptance as well as creating jobs either directly (administrative positions) or indirectly (in hotels, restaurants and other services) or in related employment.» Can Patras deliver? But the question is: Can Patras live up to such an ambitious role? Today, its cultural infrastructure is confined to an antiquated 19th century theater – and nobody objects. How will the city manage to maintain cultural complexes when Thessaloniki, in much better circumstances, is struggling with the building legacy of its own stint as cultural capital? Unless we have in mind a commercially non-feasible, statist model which will build up debts of millions of euros from the first years of its operation. Fortunately, the Patras municipality appears to have its feet on the ground and, in its technical program, has avoided easy populism. Battling attitudes Without batting an eyelid, it has linked culture with tourism and business – a global norm, with the unlikely exception of Greece, where cultural products, for unknown reasons, are divorced from real life. Not bound by the laws of the free market, they often end up shrivelling. In this country, commercial activity or a desire for profit continue to be viewed with extreme suspicion, and are kept sharply separate from cultural matters. This attitude discourages possible investors, drives away capital, and, of course, does not create new jobs. If Patras has a vision of a modern development model, it must first outflank the anti-development climate that has spread throughout the country like a disease and raises obstacles to a real modernization. Time is short For the Cultural Capital of Patras, the current No. 1 issue is the ticking clock. When unveiling the technical program, the municipal authorities themselves struck a dramatic note to register the delay. «Less than three years are left before the start of Cultural Capital 2006 events. We all confess that the time remaining until the commencement of the arts program is very short for the rational preparation and materialization of infrastructure works that would accommodate the events.» And they added: «No work has begun on the projects proposed by the technical program contained in the candidacy file for Patras 2006. «Application studies, feasibility studies, functional programs, preliminary studies and consequently cost/benefit analyses are non-existent. There is not a single timetable for drawing up and approving the studies and carrying out the works. «The tools required to formulate reliable planning and impede or curb divergences from the budget and additional delays are thus not available. «Given the lack of the above, any scheme for the technical program’s works is in danger of breaking deadlines, with all the ensuing consequences, since the works have to be ready by December 31, 2005.» The absolutely necessary But the epilogue gave a glimpse of Patras’s policy. «Nonetheless, with dialogue, the broadest possible participation and without interminable debates, realistic and sustainable proposals will be formulated and prioritized which will secure specific results within the time limits.» Deputy Mayor Ioannis Dimaras, who is responsible for the Cultural Capital works, confirms suspicions. «There isn’t time for everything, that’s clear. We have to try for the absolutely necessary.» But everyone in the city feels that time has run out even for vital projects. For example, Dimaras estimates that the 800- to 1,000-seat theater, Carnival Museum and Virtual Reality Center at the Ladopoulos factory need to have been finished by December 2005. But at present, not a single project has been carried out at the old paper mill, nor have the normally time-consuming procedures for announcing and drawing up architectural studies, not to mention feasibility studies, even begun. Dimaras was asked to assess the impact of Olympic preparations on the Cultural Capital. «Both good and bad,» he replied. «Good, because central administration is in a state of alert and we can take advantage of Athens’s experience; bad, because all the State’s attention and concern is focused on the success of the Games. I won’t hide from you that I’m afraid for the smooth flow of funding.» Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos has promised 100 million euros for infrastructure and 20 million euros for the events marking Patras’s stint as Cultural Capital.