One man’s plan to save Kallithea coast

Of all the roles he has assumed in his life – journalist, director of the radio station Sport FM, head of his hometown’s soccer team Panaigialeio, even his most recent one as candidate for mayor of the Athens district of Kallithea – he prefers being an ordinary soccer player on the team he and his friends formed 17 years ago. Giorgos Helakis might not have been born in Kallithea but he knows it well and has a vision for it that is nothing like what he sees there today. «We are a town of the ‘free besieged.’ You can’t park, there are no public spaces or greenery, there is too much concrete and now they are depriving us of our coastline,» he said in this interview which first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement K last Sunday. «It is a defeated town that needs a plan and it needs action.» Why did you decide to run for mayor? It wasn’t my decision. About a year and a half ago some interested friends saw that we had a following and so decided to run for office. However, we had to make one more decision, a more painful one, and that was to field a mayoral candidate, because that is the procedure. After a number of us had refused or expressed reservations, we decided on the person it was easiest to put pressure on – me. Would you have preferred someone else in your place? I would, because I don’t have much free time. This is an effort that requires a lot of time and great dedication. I have the dedication, but I am not in any position to neglect my job. It is harder for me to fulfill the obligations of a mayor in a system that focuses on the mayor himself, who at some point must change. How do you think you will combine the two? Since I am generally a person who rises to challenges, I’ll try to turn 24 hours into 36. I am not going to give up my job, but the residents of Kallithea can be sure that I am not going to give up city hall. Did you grow up in Kallithea? No, I was born and raised in Aigion [on the Gulf of Corinth in the northwestern Peloponnese]. I came to Athens when I was 18 and since 1989 I have spent 12-16 hours a day in Kallithea because of my job. I know the town and its people as if I had been born here. And I know its major problems. What are they? We are a town of the «free besieged.» We don’t only double-park our cars, but our dreams. Kallithea’s building density is increasing all the time. It is being built upward – if you want to see the sky, you risk putting your neck out of joint. And to think this was once a town with a coastline. Now it is cut off from the sea because of the Olympic venues. Two years after the Games, it is still fenced off and no one can get to it unless they have an SUV with a 3-liter engine to go down and board their yacht. We have been cut off from the coast, which has been turned into a harbor for a few people to moor their luxury cruisers. (The coast) is earmarked for commercial development, which means we mere mortals of Kallithea will have to pay a toll fee to enter. So we are living in a town where there are no parking spaces, public spaces or greenery and where there is too much concrete. What kind of town is that? A defeated town. If we don’t do something to change things, I am afraid that in 15-20 years’ time it will be a town where our children won’t want to live. I imagine that in 1989 it was a completely different place. You could at least find somewhere to park then. Now it’s worse than Kypseli or Pangrati. Drastic action is needed and that will also cost its citizens – the other electoral candidates don’t say that. Private car use needs to be discouraged in favor of pedestrians. At the moment, the sidewalks are being used as parking spaces. We say that Kallithea’s two main roads – Thiseos and Davaki – should be fast thoroughfares, where parking is banned. Yet the solution is not to have a parking garage right in the center, as the current municipal council wants, with long lines of cars on Sivitanidou Street waiting to park. That would bring traffic into the center instead of away from it. That would be a crime. The only winners will be the contractors. What is your proposal? We have to have peripheral roads where parking can be free but controlled, where people can leave their cars and then use municipal transport – which would be free of charge for a long period to get people used to it – to get into the center. Once that is achieved, we have to raise the idea of using bicycles. If we don’t do that – meaning that we will be walking and getting tired – nothing will change. What about the racetrack site? We can’t leave it in its current state because it will soon have even more concrete. Since the racetrack has been demolished and the space is free, it has to be made into a low-intervention recreational area for sports and some parkland, so that the town can breathe. If it is covered in concrete, we’re lost. The State Property Company was supposed to have granted it to us but hasn’t done so. The municipality should claim it, to use it, to plant vegetation, build playgrounds and then let them dare come and break it up. Let them find all of Kallithea there. Back in 1982 or 1983, sporting fields were built on the coast and the mayors who built them were criticized. However, those fields gave Kallithea people somewhere to play sports until 2002, when they were demolished to pour in tons of useless concrete for the vision of a strong Greece that hosted wonderful Olympics. There is a mistaken concept about sport that confuses professional athletes with people who like to play sport. We put the emphasis on the latter’s needs first and then the former’s. People who play sport are – potentially – everyone, and they need to be given the chance to do so. This is a concept that has nearly disappeared. You only find it on the five-a-side soccer fields and chiefly in gyms, where you have to pay to exercise. You have chiefly been active in local government. Do you prefer it to anything else? Yes, because it is the institution that brings the people close to the power centers. However, a major battle has to be waged there as well because the local elections are becoming a copy of the national elections. The long arm of central government has imposed its own policy and that cancels out the populist nature of local government. That is why we are against municipal businesses. We don’t want municipal workers on a contract, or employees paid by the hour for four hours a day. That is for business, not for the state, because it distorts its nature as a social institution. Of all the things you do – journalist, director of Sport FM, head of Panaigialeio, sportsman-footballer, and perhaps mayor – which do you feels the closest to? The best times of my life happen every Saturday morning when I play soccer with my friends. The fact that I play in a team formed in 1989, back when we were kids, is the only sure thing I have achieved in Athens.

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