Ministry of Culture must decide fate of its Plaka properties

During the 1980s, when Plaka began turning into what it is starting to become again today – the most beautiful neighborhood in Athens – there was another story being played out in the background: Ministry of Culture services began moving into renovated neoclassical houses in quick succession. All former homes that had come into the possession of the state back from the times when the dictatorship regime had them expropriated, they then came into the possession of the Culture Ministry, which found itself with a large amount of real estate it had to decide what to do with. The buildings were not few: approximately 120 former homes, many of them quite large in size (and economic value), mostly clustered around the heart of the area, around the Tower of the Winds and the Roman Forum. The path of least resistance was the one taken by the ministry, as it moved a plethora of its administrative services into the Plaka homes. The news was great for hundreds of employees of the ministry who could go to work every day in this idyllic environment. The news was not so good for the residents of Plaka though. After 4 p.m., when the services closed up for the day, entire streets would become deserted as the night settled in. Large chunks of Plaka were made bare of human activity every night, raising local security concerns and allowing the properties in these areas to become victims to vandalism. Last month, Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis revealed one of the ministry’s plans of attack against this problem in an interview with Kathimerini, saying that with the impending July transfer of the ministry’s headquarters to a complex in Rendi, they would also be addressing the use of the buildings in Plaka. Voulgarakis said that he will re-examine all the terms of their use and said that he would like to see all the buildings being used to house infrastructural services to be used for cultural purposes. «To operate as galleries, interactive spaces, exhibitions areas… all that Athens is lacking,» he said. Yiannis Michail, a member of the team monitoring and studying the problems arising in Plaka, is skeptical: «Exactly 20 years ago, the Monitoring Committee, noting the problems that arose from the public services moving into the district, submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Culture: to cede the buildings for a period of 30 years and for a specific amount of rent to private investors, who would agree to meet the full cost of their renovation and modernization.» The proposal was turned down twice. Michail, hearing of the minister’s statements, appears guarded: «We must, at all costs, preserve the residential character of Plaka, which, moreover, is ensured by a presidential decree. Otherwise, I am very afraid that Plaka will become another Psyrri,» he said, referring to the downtown neighborhood that has gone from a residential/small business district to a nightlife hotspot with little else but bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs.