Athens loses open space to coffeeshops, fast-food joints as young Greeks see cafe hangouts as status symbols

In the Athens of old, children would play on the streets and teenagers would go on strolls to make their first tentative contacts with the opposite sex. Now that cafes and fast-food outlets have run over sidewalks, the city’s youth sit at tables eating donuts and sipping cappuccinos or hang out at malls and multiplexes. Most of the remaining squares and parks are so covered by cafe tables that some customers consider park benches the domain of the poor. «Who are we to be sitting on benches?» snickered one group of young people at a cafe. Greeks need private recreation posts almost as much as they need homes and cars. Each of these hangouts have reputations, some good, others not so good. Strefi Hill in downtown Exarchia, for instance, «is for dogs and drug addicts,» says Maria Athanasopoulou, who is walking her dog in one of the few wooded parts of the city. «If the rest of us stopped coming [to Strefi Hill] it would be much worse,» she says. «Not that we have a problem with the addicts, but they often fight and break bottles. Children have to stay in the playground and on the playing fields.» On Dionysiou Areopagitou Street, Athens’s showplace pedestrian precinct below the Acropolis, things aren’t much better. «It’s become a highway!» said local resident Aliki Modinou. «Motorcyclists race up and down and the municipal police turn a blind eye.» At the Pedion tou Areos Park at the bottom of Alexandras Avenue, woe betide anyone – except perhaps karate experts – who should enter at night. An elderly gentleman sitting on a bench in Fokionos Negri Square in the densely populated district of Kypseli introduces himself as «David Dolkas, of the Christian religion and 90 years of age.» He is surrounded by three children on each side. «I come here every day. I chased away some bad kids who were beating up the younger ones. These here are good kids and I encourage them to get ahead,» he said. The Athens-Piraeus strip is a seaside urban conglomeration, but in most places the sea is hidden behind main roads. Yet in the few oases of open space, there are some local residents who use it for taking walks or sitting by the water. Pasalimani in Piraeus and Floisvos in Palaio Faliron are fairly lively, with residents often enjoying a swim. The seaside below Kastela is the haunt of young couples. At one stretch of the coast in Palaio Faliron, chess games are usually in process. Still, cafes and restaurants are the most crowded. It looks as if the battle for public space in Athens has been lost. As for greenery, what little exists is uncared for. One young couple lying on the grass in the National Garden said there was far more greenery in Cologne. When someone pointed out to them that they were supposed to keep off the grass, even here in Athens, they laughed. «But it’s there for you to walk on, lie on and sit on!» they responded. «What else is it for?» This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s Sunday color supplement K on September 17, 2006.