Psyrri pays the penalty for its surging popularity as entertainment-seeking hordes change trendy area

In the early 1990s, Athens was a city with an outmoded nightlife itinerary – dominated by a tired Kolonaki and the tourist trap of Plaka. Restoration works in Psyrri, a forgotten district of light manufacturing, began at the most opportune moment when Athens was looking for a no man’s land in a city center for its thirsty, Saturday night hordes. Perhaps the restoration was limited to the absolute minimum around central Aghion Anargyron Street, but the message was clear: This is the new Plaka. Greek nightclubs were already passe, but had been succeeded by a new fashion for restaurants serving up appetizers (mezedopoleia) and live music. Rents skyrocketed overnight. Psyrri, once looked down on, had turned over a new leaf, its narrow lanes choked with convertibles, while restaurants and bars were springing up everywhere among the broken sidewalks, traffic chaos and shoddy architecture. Yet tiny Psyrri, squeezed between Monastiraki and Koumondourou Square, was not a no man’s land. It was inhabited by people going about their daily lives and who even worked there. But the surge of the city, the almost terrifying need for entertainment, spilled over into the narrow streets of the district, taking it unawares. Low prices and a desire for a change had already led theater and gallery owners out of high-priced Kolonaki and the official city center into Psyrri – a vague idea of creating a Soho in Athens dawned with the new millenium. It is a concept that has become increasingly shaky. The prevalence of the taverna has overshadowed every other activity. The theaters and galleries have not laid the foundations for a different kind of development model. More galleries are closing than opening. The example of Thessaloniki’s similar Ladadika district does not augur well for Psyrri. Of the 94 businesses that operated there four years ago, just 43 are still open. The reasons can be sought in the surfeit of similar types of businesses, the indifference of the state, a lack of police patrols, no restrictions on shop signs, traffic jams and property owners’ indifference to the state of their poorly maintained buildings. Sound familiar? The influx of «culture» to Psyrri was initially encouraged by low rents. Actress Aliki Georgouli took the first brave step back in the early 1980s, when she opened the Apothiki Theater in Sarri Street, now the street with the most theaters in the city. Art galleries followed, also tempted by low rents. Four years later, a major transformation was under way. Rents in Psyrri were competing with those in Kolonaki. Art galleries began to move out. The historic Artio closed shortly after moving there from Kolonaki, the Unlimited, one of the first galleries in the district, is closing on December 18. Stathis Panagoulis, of The Breeder art gallery, confirms the worst forecasts. «The situation is going from bad to worse; we don’t like the district anymore. Fortunately, we are at the lower end, toward Koumoundourou Square, but the center of Psyrri is tragically petit-bourgeois. It attracts people who do belly-dancing from noon to night. If we could, we would leave today,» he said. Moving out is not such a far-fetched idea. Already attention is being given to Gazi and to Metaxourgeio. «When we came here in 2000, the hope was for an Athenian Soho. Now we still see artists coming to Psyrri but I have to say that what we are seeing is not to my taste,» he said. And it isn’t just the galleries. In Iroon Square, right in the heart of Psyrri, one of the first of the «new-era» establishments has closed. Neither a bar nor a restaurant, it was a shop that sold small, elegant gifts. Now it is no more. Right next door is a similar store. It is Friday afternoon, and we are window shopping. We walk in, and the charming owner confirms the news about the shop next door, attributing the problem to the lack of residential housing and the fact that the district comes alive only at night. High rents are another deterrent. These two shops in Iroon Square are not the only businesses that tried to give Psyrri a new identity.