Kato Patissia: new life for city’s old neighborhoods

The sun set over an hour ago, but in Kalymnou Street the concrete is still radiating heat. From the open windows come the sounds of incomprehensible voices and muffled laughter. In the neighborhoods around Victoria Square, Aghios Nikolaos and Kato Patissia, the term «urban jungle» is not used loosely: the labyrinth of narrow streets twist and turn around buildings put up with no regard for zoning. Even one of the main streets, Tritis Septemvriou, narrows where it meets Aghiou Meletiou Street. Acharnon and Patission avenues, the main thoroughfares, define the limits of a neighborhood that used to be the haunt of university students but now is home to over a million cars and hundreds, if not thousands, of garbage dumpsters, while the owner of the corner store is no longer called «Mitsos» but «Ahmet» or «Dmitri» and is from Albania or Bangladesh. Poles sit on the steps of their apartment buildings drinking beer. Muharen, a Gypsy from Albania, sits smoking on the edge of a flower bed on the corner of Iou Street, watching his sons play with a synthesizer. He lives in a 35-square-meter basement apartment, where the rent is 150 euros a month. «Why should I talk to you for nothing?» he said. «I don’t care about newspapers, television, or Karamanlis. I have six children, I want a residence permit. I am illiterate. I paid 1,500 euros for the harmonium so my children can learn a few tunes to earn some money. Our people have always been musicians,» he tells us. And he keeps on talking, not letting us leave. We photograph Mohammed from Egypt through his basement window. It is dinner time and all the windows are open, everyone is out in the street, which echoes to the sound of people talking in many tongues. All that remains of old Patissia is the Au Revoir, formerly a favorite haunt of poets and bohemians. In an apartment block in Aghiou Meletiou Street, there are two elevators, one for residents and another for domestic staff. These days the former residents have headed north, leaving behind a few elderly people or their own grandchildren, students with an alternative lifestyle. What makes the greatest impression on someone coming from a «safe» neighborhood, however, is the fact that the streets, squares and sidewalks here are all full of people, even – or rather especially – at night. As soon as the temperature drops a little, the children pour into Amerikis Square or the large playground in Sifnou Street. Even on Fylis Street, where furtive glances are cast at the red lights over doorways, children play under their mothers’ watchful eyes. The vivacity and palpable absence of fear in these streets is a result of the fact that immigrants don’t spend their extra money in cafes, restaurants, or even on comfortable armchairs; there is always someone back home waiting for a remittance. Instead, they have seized possession of public spaces abandoned by older residents – and brought life back into them. This article first appeared in the August 14 edition of «K,» Kathimerini’s color supplement.

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