Who does Kolonaki belong to?

A dyed-in-the wool Kolonaki resident, Michalis Moussou divides his time between Athens and abroad. But recently, much of his time is spent in Kolonaki Square – collecting signatures to protest its new look. The long list gathered by Moussou includes distinguished names in Athenian society, among what appear to be suburbanites. Their indigenousness or lack thereof is immaterial; what overrides everything else is defending the Kolonaki Square we knew and loved, before its controversial makeover by Dimitris and Suzanna Antonakaki. North of the square, the shop windows and entrances of apartment blocks have filled with notices by the active local society, «Alexandros Papadiamantis.» This time, the object of censure is not office-holders at the Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works (YPEHODE) over the square’s new architectural shape, but Athens Municipality’s works on the sidewalks in nearby Haritos Street – which, admittedly, are in bad shape. The fear is that Haritos will turn into another Milioni Street: that microscopic street west of the square which was one of the quietest in Kolonaki – until it became a pedestrian precinct. Nowadays, cafes and restaurants have wholly taken over, to the extent that it takes considerable effort just to find a tortuous route through the tables and chairs. Heaven and hell Isn’t that, however, the charm of Kolonaki? The moving, cheerful mass of people who wander from cafe to cafe, from bar to bar and from boutique to boutique? What would Kolonaki be like without Tsakaloff and Milioni streets? Ask Maria Marangou, art critic, director of the Rethymnon Center for Contemporary Art and permanent resident of Haritos Street. To get to her front door and put the key in the lock, she first has to ask, politely, the patrons of the neighboring bars to get up for her to pass, and to be careful not to break any of their glasses. Marangou is by no means a recluse; quite the contrary. She likes bars, crowds, good company and life in the city. But chance (or rather, mischance) has placed her in a building on the small part of Haritos which has been pedestrianized. «I like liveliness, but if your bedroom is on the street side, you’re finished, you don’t have a life.» Friends and neighbors fled the apartments whose bedrooms did overlook the street. Marangou sympathizes; she feels under the obligation to side with them. She joined in the protests over the revamped square. Not that she preferred its previous state either. «I don’t like it now, just as I didn’t like it before.» She esteems the work of the Antonakaki couple, but believes that they were heavy on the cement in the design, for an area as densely built up as Kolonaki. Nevertheless, she is not considering leaving Haritos Street. «Kolonaki is one of the last community neighborhoods left in Athens. You leave your house and say five hellos.» This lays bare the Kolonaki divide: On the one hand, there is the pleasant urban neighborhood that she describes; on the other, the crowds in Milioni, Tsakaloff and Haritos streets, «liveliness,» the Da Capo cafe, a collective fantasy of Kolonaki as an upper-class island in a city with only a very shallow urban tradition and which wants to dream. So, to whom does Kolonaki belong? To the people who have their houses there? To former Prime Minister and resident Giorgios Rallis, or to the habitue, center-forward Nikos Anastopoulos? Historical chic I meet with university professor M.K., patron of the most popular cafe on Kolonaki Square, on a Sunday morning. It’s still early, and the «foreigners» have not descended on the square. The cafe’s clientele all know each other, and exchange warm greetings. I ask the professor for his views on the square, but he did not seem unduly concerned. On the contrary, he pointed out two problems I had not thought of: four-wheel-drive vehicles, and four-footed beasts and their feces. (These giant animals live imprisoned in apartments, evident status symbols for their owners.) Kolonaki as the haunt of the grand bourgeois is a relatively recent myth, certainly no older than the interwar years. An urban nucleus was initially created there with the establishment of foreign archaeological schools and the Gennadius Library. It was accompanied by a touch of bohemianism, with Dexameni as its epicenter. Towering above other intellectuals and bohemians was the figure of writer Alexandros Papadiamantis. The atmosphere attracted what we call even today «people of culture,» so to speak, such as the poets Andreas Embiricos and Takis Papatsonis. During the incidents of December 1944, when fighting broke out that marked the beginning of the Civil War, Kolonaki acquired its political hue, since the area was controlled by British troops and the non-communist bloc. Postwar, this political tendency was especially distasteful to the more plebeian strata and left-leaning Athenians, who regarded Kolonaki as the haunt of black marketeers. Popular culture in its turn cultivated the myth of Kolonaki, a myth that was given expression in the hugely popular TV series, written by Dimitris Psathas and directed by Thanassis Papageorgiou, «Madam Sousou.» (In it, a social climber embarrasses all those round her with her ridiculously affected behavior, which she fondly imagines is typical of high society.) Another such rendering of the myth is «Laos kai Kolonaki» (The People and Kolonaki), an old Greek film in which a humble milkman falls for a haughty Kolonaki aristocrat. And that wasn’t all. Kolonaki’s present shape crystallized during the golden age of land-for-apartments exchange, roughly from 1955 to 1965. For the first time, its middle- to upper-class identity was undermined. The system gave the right to owners of general stores, tavernas, small shops and the like to change their income bracket thanks to the acquisition of property in some of the most expensive of the capital’s streets. The tavernas and general stores, usually housed in humble buildings, were demolished to make way for apartment blocks. This development shook up the social constitution of Kolonaki, without, of course, toppling it from its place as one of the city’s classier neighborhoods. The political world also gave its seal of approval: Constantine Karamanlis, when he took over the premiership, settled in Kolonaki. From this point of view, the fact that the late prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, never showed any desire to descend to Kolonaki, is significant. Perhaps such a move would have disoriented his followers. By contrast, when PASOK wanted to turn the page, it was not afraid of voting for a Kolonakiot, former Prime Minister Costas Simitis. Andreas Papandreou might have never lived there, but the message did not reach everyone. The 1980s was the second milestone in the brief history of the area, after the era of apartment-block buildings. The new PASOK nomenclature settled on the outskirts of Kolonaki. PASOK minister Giorgos Katsifaras abandoned the Museum district for the sake of a place on Xenocratous Street – coincidentally in the very same apartment block where painter and academic Panayiotis Tetsis lived. In the same period, a large proportion of Kolonaki residents moved out to the northern suburbs – although other areas were also responsible for the new order of things. The phenomenon was widespread: During the 1970s and 1980s, not only Kolonaki but other «good» middle-class neighborhoods (to a greater extent, perhaps), especially around Patission Street, lost their allure due to the Athens smog and traffic. It is again significant that when Karamanlis returned from his Paris exile in July 1974, after the fall of the junta, he chose not to live in Kolonaki but in the outer (and expensive) suburb of Politeia. The bad days came and went. The social mobility brought by PASOK, the new elites and the lifestyle invasion breathed new life into Kolonaki. Maria Marangou told me: «All the basement flats have filled with foreigners, Albanians, Kurds and so on. And that’s a very good thing.’ At the beginning of the 21st century, Kolonaki is the center of the city, as was Syntagma Square in the 1960s. Soigne elderly ladies wearing hats who I gazed at last Sunday in the center of the square represent a part of Kolonaki that is disappearing. At the same moment, the cafes on Tsakaloff were packed to the gills. A bright human river flowed through streets, alleyways and shops. For one moment, everything seemed harmonious and in its place. Kolonaki, I thought, did not belong to anyone, but only to itself: to a contradictory, cheerful, aged, lively, bizarre self that changes as we change.