Demographics, better transport change capital

Athens, as it is today, appears to be choking inside the boundaries of the Attica basin, squeezed as it is between its three mountains. The availability of free land has been lacking for years, the market thirsts for expanses that are available for construction (where is everything being planned going to be built?) and Athenians, in turn, thirst for the vehicles of mass consumption – large children’s parks, shopping centers with affordable furniture. The market for cheap (and therefore clever) buys is a new common value that Greeks share without guilt. What is important today is to buy as much as you can for as little as possible. The widespread success of the likes of Zara’s clothes store, Ikea home furnishing and the Lidl discount supermarket have redrawn the social map of the city. It no longer matters whether you live in Kifissia or Perama to have the same goal: a full child’s bedroom set for 800 euros. Transport changes Thankfully, the changes in the Attica retail landscape have come hand in hand with a string of revolutionary changes in the transportation network. Would Ikea ever have been located at Spata were it not for the Attiki Odos highway and the regional railway that allow shoppers from the center of Athens to reach the area in just half an hour? Would Village Entertainment ever have made the decision to move its multiplex cinema and entertainment complex from the by-road off Kifissias Avenue in Maroussi to the area around the Olympic Stadium if it didn’t have the metro/suburban rail station of Nerantziotissa nearby? Would Reds ever have invested in the Escape Center entertainment complex in Ilion if the Attiki Odos did not have an exit in the vicinity? The impressive mushrooming of mega-entertainment complexes around the core of Athens, however, do not sap the core itself. In contrast to what was happening in the early 1980s, the decentralization of commercial activity seems to be boosting the city center’s profile. The signs are obvious: the reconstruction of the Army Staff Pension Fund into a modern department store, the symbolic transfer of the old Bakakos pharmacy building in Omonia to Zara, the opening of a Habitat store on Kolokotroni Street, the first Lambropoulos Notos Home department store on Kotzia Square, the revamping of the Korai Arcade and the future reconstruction of the old Athenian department store Minion are just some of the changes in the city center that help to boost its profile. And there is no contradiction here either. There are two factors that are initiating changes in the Greek capital and affecting its potential. First of all, there have been dramatic shifts in the composition of the city’s population. A great many more people live in Athens since the early 1990s and a big portion of the new residents are economic migrants. The zero buying power they had when they first arrived at Omonia Square in those tough, early years now belongs to the distant past. Now, their daily wages have to be cashed in: The kids want new sneakers, preferably the new Nike or Puma models, the wife stands in line at Lidl in the morning to catch the weekly bargain, and the husband eyes a suit in the window of Glou, knowing that he can afford it. Today, the low-income immigrant may eye the same couch at Ikea as the average suburbanite – the stylish three-seater going for 200 euros unites them. Classless consumerism does away with the boundaries of the past (Kolonaki Square today is what Syntagma was in the 1960s). It also homogenizes to a great degree people’s lifestyles and encourages cross-class mixing (a regular night at Psyrri is a good example of this). There is something else as well: The possibility of large-scale commercial development in the suburbs allows the city center to create a new, different commercial profile modeled along the lines of other big European cities. Up until recently, the center of Athens was everything. Today it cannot be everything and that is a good thing. In fact, it can be a lot more than it was in the past. After decades of sliding into decadence, the city center is once more a place a regular family will come to visit. At the same time, it is also evolving into a privileged «shelter» for less traditional social groups (young people, bachelors, single women) who seek neither the quiet life of the suburbs nor the easy access to hypermarkets. Soon the city center will have to meet the needs of these two, diametrically opposed, social groups. This means, on the one hand, the development of investments aimed at families and, on the other, the development of more specialized, personalized services. The evolution of a new «internal map» of Athens began as early as the 1970s, provoked not by some emergency (such as war, mass immigration or a wave of refugees) as at other points in the history of the city, but by a very important shift in social geography: The wealthy, middle-class strata of Athenian society, settled for years in central neighborhoods such as Kypseli, Neapoli and Pangrati, began abandoning the city center in favor of suburbs in the north (Maroussi, Kifissia, Politeia, Ekali) and the south (Glyfada, Voula, Vouliagmeni). Uninviting city Mounting environmental concerns in Athens, such as smog, became the catalyst for the first wave of «suburbanization,» and these «migrants» took with them the strong consumer culture they had developed over the years at Kolonaki’s boutiques, Patission’s and Stadiou’s department stores and even points outside Greece, since at the time people traveled abroad frequently to shop for items they «could not find in Athens.» As Athens mutated into a repulsive and uninviting area due to its traffic and smog, the suburbs had to make haste to meet the consumer needs of their new residents. This is how, for the first time in Athens, two major, peripheral and independent commercial centers – Kifissia and Glyfada – developed, enhanced further by the impressive development boom along Kifissias Avenue. As an increasing number of people left the center for the suburbs over the years, more such centers began to mushroom in Halandri, Nea Erythraia, Aghia Paraskevi, Nea Smyrni, and Palaio Faliron.