Life on 04 Street in the Olympic Village

A carpenter with a successful business in the Athens district of Brahami, with two children in school, is one of the new homeowners in Athens’s Olympic Village on the city’s northwestern outskirts, an area far from everything he had grown accustomed to. The new owners are strangers to each other, of varying socio-economic backgrounds, often poles apart, with all kinds of preferences, needs and ideals, who suddenly became homeowners in an «artificial» community by a lottery draw. In Greece, this experiment is the first of its kind. Worker housing – for that is what the Olympic Village basically is – was long built around already existing residential areas. Residents were from similar social strata; schools and shops were in place. Local authorities did not need to do anything in particular to incorporate them. This time things are different. The huge parks and squares in the Olympic Village, wide streets with numbers instead of names and the 2,292 dwellings waiting to house over 10,000 people have been given unprecedented treatment. Perhaps that is why residents are guarded in their comments about their new homes. «At the moment the Olympic Village is pervaded by optimism,» we were assured by a long-time employee of the Worker Housing Organization (OEK) and a member of the subsidiary managing the post-Olympic renovation of the village. He made no bones about the problems that have arisen due to the effort to meet deadlines. The homes had to be handed over to their new owners on schedule; any delay would have meant a political cost that no government wants to bear. Therefore the four consortiums speeded up the work. The Olympic athletes’ accommodation was rapidly transformed into ordinary homes. OEK’s engineers supervising the work – those who come into daily contact with the new owners – are taking note of the minor damages. They are frequently the butt of often pointless complaints; after all, they point out, they are handing over some 100 homes a week. Still, the Olympic Village is now a community, even without the 24 basic stores or school buildings that have yet to be completed. Meanwhile its state-of-the-art polyclinic still has no contract with the Social Security Foundation (IKA), the country’s largest social security fund. Most of all, there is absolutely no provision for the unique type of administration that should exist for a town of 10,000 people, but a town that has high operating costs. For reasons of proximity, this task has been dumped onto the lap of the municipality of Acharnes, already overburdened with its own problems. Yet there have been no protests, since there is a major counter-incentive. In addition to what is generally agreed to be very low prices, the grace period for paying first installments on the homes has been extended from six to eight months. Of the 1,500 who have already taken possession of their homes, only 400 families have moved in, those mostly in need of housing. The rest are waiting for the new school year, when the on-site schools will open. As a result, the Olympic Village is going through a very lengthy transition period. Human presence is thin on the ground. Chrisanthe Halari, nevertheless, has every reason to be angry. Images of dogs rooting among the rubbish on prime-time news the previous day have made her furious. «I don’t allow anyone to belittle the place where I live,» she said. Halari has four children and her husband is disabled. After many years she has finally been able to own her own home, 101 brand-new square meters, where she proudly showed us her new furniture. «Do you know what it means not having to pay rent for six or eight months as they are now telling us?» The problem of street cleaning, a sore point between the residents and the municipality of Acharnes, was resolved when the deputy minister stepped in and funds were found from the municipal coffers. The fleet of garbage collection trucks was enlarged and 250 dumpsters installed in the village. Seeking independence At the same time on a different block, others were thinking about how to benefit from the various mix-ups and take over the new community’s administration for themselves. They believe the municipality has failed in its task. Although it charges the community municipal rates, it has not done as much as it could have. The first signatures have been collected and the Association of Olympic Village Residents has been set up. «Who is the municipality of Acharnes to say that it accepts us? Did anyone ask us?» said its chairman Nikos Frangakis. Christos and Yianna Koulia, who have been part of the effort from the outset, believe that only if the residents take over themselves will the village be able to develop into a real town. As for the large expanses of greenery and the expense involved in maintaining such a large and expensive community, they reply: «We will do it ourselves. With our money, the money that the municipality now gets. There will be 10,000 people living here. Who will bother with us? Menidi? They have their own problems.» Their 16-year-old son, Haris, can’t wait for the shops to open so he can go out with his friends for a coffee. He has to get up at 6.30 a.m. every morning to get to school on the other side of Athens in Zografou, where the family used to live. He said it would have been difficult to leave his schoolmates in the middle of the school year. In a street near a building that is to house the Labor Ministry, 10-year-old Saba from Pakistan is also waiting for schools to open. Her father Gula, who has been in Greece since 1977, can afford neither the time nor the money to take her to her old school in Peristeri. A worker in a textile factory, he has made sacrifices, since his wife Beshir does not work and his four children have all said they want to study, apart from 22-year-old Tazim who has dreamed of getting married since she finished primary school. Behind the front doors of the Olympic Village homes are people of all kinds, ages and goals; Sofianos Bourtzonis, who wants to open a mini-market franchise, Katy Goka, who has bought new umbrellas for her veranda, and her husband Dimitris, who walks their dog Remo, have all made it their home. As to whether it will feel like a real home in the future is something that should be given some thought right now. Despite their differences, the residents agree on one thing: They all want the barbed wire. On August 20, 2006, the jurisdiction of Olympic Village SA comes to an end and with it the contract with the private security firm that controls entry to the village. Residents are seeking a formula to keep their village safe. That alone shows they don’t feel as if they are living in an ordinary town. This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K on Sunday, May 14.