Drug scene has moved to Monastiraki

Small groups of drug users hang around, begging from passers-by, shouting and smashing bottles outside the closed doors of the shops on Hephaestou Street. Some sit on the ventilation grates of the metro, while others hang out beside Monastiraki station, dimly observing people walking by. A young man collapses, unconscious, and two people approach slowly to try to bring him around. A few meters further on, the grim surface of the square has become a makeshift store for Asians selling cheap trousers, bags, plastic toys and pirate CDs, next to the Panaghia Pantanassa Church at the entrance to Plaka. Nobody wants to dawdle; they all move on quickly. Monastiraki Square has become the new Omonia. Monastiraki Square, the hub of tourism in Athens, is the picture of neglect: Gray, dirty, inhospitable, sometimes even dangerous, the gateway to the Athens-Piraeus electric railway (ISAP) and the metro to Plaka, Monastiraki and Psyrri comprise the worst possible negative advertising for the city’s historic center. Many assaults Storeowners in the area, who are all too familiar with the situation, describe it in the grimmest terms. «Monastiraki Square attracts the hopeless, drug users and illegal street sellers who have been chased out of other areas. It is sordid, especially on Friday and Saturday,» Nikos Kouyioumtzis, the president of the Monastiraki Storeowners’ Association, told Kathimerini. «Youngsters 15 years old come into the shops half-naked and barefoot, crying. They beg us to let them call home because people have attacked them and stolen their shoes, their jackets, their mobile phone. It happens all the time. Tourists come to Monastiraki and get hassled by beggars, junkies and street sellers who are peddling knockoffs of designer sunglasses and watches. The square is full of trash and dirt; it’s disgusting to set foot in. And at one end, there’s a skip they put out for the waste from the tavernas, which stinks. This is the most tourist-trodden part of Athens.» «The square has been neglected; the lack of police patrols is obvious,» Vangelis Rogotis, president of the Antique Vendors’ Union, told Kathimerini. «Drug dealing and illegal street selling are out of control. The square is like a car park. The candidates for mayor [in the recent municipal elections] promised it would be their first concern. We call on all those involved to take action.» One of the chief causes of the problem is the state of the square itself. The square was put out of action, so to speak, in 1993, due to the construction work on the metro station and consequent archaeological excavations. Metal screens surrounded it for more than 10 years. These were removed in April 2003, when the station was opened, revealing a square covered in a roughshod fashion with concrete and asphalt. There are still two work sites in the square. The first, next to the ISAP entrance, is connected to the project of highlighting the bed of the Eridanus River, which will be visible both from the square and from within the station. Originally scheduled for completion six months after the station was opened, the project has been delayed for three years due to holdups associated with the competitions. It is now due for completion in late 2007. The second work site is for the restoration of the Church of Panaghia Pantanassa, also to be competed by late next year. The principal problem is not these two small work sites, however, but the general image of the square itself, and has been since 2003. In 1998, the office for the Unification of Archaeological Sites of Athens (EAXA) announced an international competition for the refurbishment of the square, but the winning bid was never implemented. The study that won first prize (designed by architects Nikos Kazeros, Zinovia Costopoulou, Vado Manidaki, Christina Parakente and Eleni Tzirtzilaki), got stuck somewhere between the Central Archaeological Council (KAS), EAXA and the architects. «The original study proposed covering the surface of the square with 12 different kinds of stones, to which KAS objected, requesting a supplementary study,» EAXA President Kyriakos Griveas told Kathimerini. «A long legal dispute followed, which greatly delayed the process. Now we are in the final phase of completing the studies and we hope that we can soon include the project in the Community Support Framework. If all goes well, the refurbishment work will start within the next six months.» But sources at the Physical Planning and Public Works Ministry describe the situation as a dilemma that will not be resolved without clear political intervention. If the square is ever to be refurbished, it will upgrade the overall image of the area. «At least it will be an aesthetic improvement,» said Kouyioumtzis. «It will get cleaned up and the area will get street lighting. We hope that the issue of policing doesn’t wait until then.»

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