Long-awaited transformation of Pireos Street has begun with efforts from private enterprise

From Thursday to Sunday, popular singers George Dalaras, Antonis Remos, Notis Sfakianakis and Elli Kokkinou pull in the crowds at nightclubs; further down the street, dancers learn the capoeira, art lovers prowl the halls of the New Benaki Museum and mothers take their children to a theater performance of «Pinocchio.» Old factories are being converted into music stages and art galleries, cavernous warehouses into museums and theaters, gray facades are getting new paint jobs and a new image. The town is talking about the transformation of Pireos Street (reaching from Omonia Square to Piraeus) as the up-and-coming section of downtown Athens. The winds of change began to blow back in the early 1990s, when the School of Fine Arts moved to No. 246, a building once occupied by Hellenic Textiles. That was followed in 1998 by the Foundation of the Hellenic World in the old BIOSOL factory and, a year later, Athens Municipality’s Technopolis in the district’s landmark site of Gazi, the old gasworks. Soon the once-dark alleys around Gazi began to fill with trendy bars and restaurants and the city’s nightlife moved in wintertime to the nearby Iera Odos – an area where just a few years earlier the streets were deserted after 8 p.m. and no one dared venture there on a Saturday night. «Until recently, people were afraid to walk here at night; now they don’t think twice about it,» said Froso Trousa, director of the DAN.C.CE school. «When we came to Pireos Street about three years ago, it was still dead. Now there is an amazing dynamic that attracts young people and that is interesting. Just as interesting is the variety of activities – not just bouzouki clubs, but art galleries. Moreover, everything new that comes in is usually in reasonable taste.» Piecemeal transformation In 1995, the Environment and Public Works Ministry promised to undertake a revamping of the area, removing billboards, laying underground cables, creating open spaces and repairing decrepit building facades. Last November, a ministerial decree amended the building regulations, ordered the planting of all open spaces with greenery and approving the reuse of listed buildings. «Pireos Street missed out on the big cleanup for the Olympic Games, as it was not included in the strategy for the city,» said Andreas Kourkoulas, architect of the New Benaki Museum. «The prevailing philosophy was that the old part of the city could not be changed, that it was a lost cause. Pireos Street has been the venue for sporadic activities, such as the Benaki Museum or the Fine Arts School, but these were not enough to set things in motion.» Talking to history Yet, day by day, old industrial sites are attracting more and more interest from artists and businesses. The new art galleries alternate with nightclubs, such as Pireos 130, Budha and Enastron, making for an unprecedented cultural melting pot. Alexandros, who lives in the city center, often leaves his car at home and walks down to Pireos, not so much to avoid a breathalyzer test on the way home, but because he likes the route. «Looking at the grim apartment houses of the 1960s, restored neoclassical houses and gray facades of other buildings is like talking to history. When you drive you don’t notice. I’d like to take my camera with me one day. Yet it’s a shame that anything new is always the product of private initiative,» he said. Journalist Prokopis Doukas has lived in a restored neoclassical house in Koumoundourou Square since 1998. «Koumoundourou is a lovely square, but it wasn’t always. The district is still down-market and in need of urgent restoration, even though there are places such as the Varoulko restaurant and the Iridanos hotel that have introduced a new style. I don’t mind the car repair shops – on the contrary – but what I do mind is the buildings they are in, and the apartment houses with the narrow balconies. Ugliness is very difficult to get rid of. But we could, as we did in the Olympics, cover it up in inexpensive ways.» New venues In September 2003, the BIOS culture and arts center moved into what was once a refrigerated warehouse at No. 84, but decided not to renovate the building, just to make «useful» changes. «At first, we didn’t even want to paint the walls, thinking that we should leave the building as it was, an integral part of the city, instead of marketing it as a new product. Athens is one of the few cities in the world where buildings are not appreciated, but we love ours. In the end, we altered a few building features but we haven’t put up any billboards or lit signs. We want the building to be known for what goes on inside it, and for the structure itself to be just a shell,» said a representative. Further down at No. 80, Lefteris Lazarou has moved his award-winning Varoulko restaurant, after 20 years in Piraeus, in with the Iridanos hotel. In 1998, the Xydias Technical Firm bought the Strefis family’s neoclassical building at No. 78, for conversion to a hotel. «There were real indications that Pireos Street was changing for the better,» said the hotel’s manager, Anna Kotroni. «We wanted to play our part in that change, by opening a hotel that was not aimed at mass tourism or major tour operators.» Lazarou makes no secret of his own pleasure at his move to the heart of the city, since it has been welcomed by his customers. «Every year, around March, I used to worry about where I would put my business in the summer months,» he explained. «When I received the proposal to work with the Iridanos, I accepted straight away. Whether we like it or not, Athens is the center of things, access is easier and I can stay put all year round. But the state should do something to preserve the area, so that we don’t see here what happened in Plaka and Tourkolimano some years ago and is happening now in Psyrri.» As one moves away from the city center to the corner of Hamosternas Street, the faded signs become more difficult to read, and it becomes more difficult to imagine what used to be there. Particularly behind the impressive 75-meter facade of No. 166, an old railway company warehouse converted in record time by the Papatheocharis group into the Pantheon, which is to be completed in 2003. The design for the exterior is by the artist Kostas Varotsos. «Since December 23, it has housed the music hall Athinon Arena (where singers George Dalaras and Antonis Remos have been appearing) and when completed, it will also house restaurants, hotels, art galleries, conference centers, a theater, shops and cinemas,» Varotsos told Kathimerini. «The transformation from manufacturing and industry to culture is extremely interesting, but the development rate is worrying. Pireos should remain a place for art in all its forms,» he said.

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