Kypseli: Central Athens past and present

As recently as the 1950s, a stormwater channel used to run down Evelpidon Street in the Athens district of Kypseli, goats used to graze in the nearby park and grandmothers would call out to their charges to watch out for snakes. Many of the homes were little more than shacks and the roads were unsurfaced, according to former university professor Panos Tsakaloyiannis. These are scenes that are unimaginable today in Athens’s 6th municipal department, which is typical of many deprived city districts – a lack of green space, but a surfeit of noise and crime. Yet Kypseli is something more than its problems. The beautiful buildings are now dusty monuments to a lost age of Athenian bourgeoisie. Fokionos Negri Street has lost its charm but still attracts crowds. The narrow streets, many of them named after islands and towns in Asia Minor, are confusing. Immigrants (Albanians, Poles, Africans and more) have found new homes here. Kypseli is its myriad shops filled with colors, flavors and aromas, ranging from the Polish supermarket in Aghia Zoni Street to an African hairdressing salon run by Sofia Magripli, who, although a midwife by profession, opened the salon many years ago for the simple reason that «white hairdressers don’t know how to do our hair.» Kypseli is also the well-dressed elderly people sitting in cafes, but also the soup kitchen at the church of Aghia Zoni. Its citizens are active on many fronts, from planting trees in the Pedion tou Areos park or waging a campaign to save the historic local market building. Kypseli (which means «beehive» in Greek) consists of a number of smaller hives each with its own character, shops and restaurants, each presenting a different aspect of the greater whole. Yiannis Kouvaris, 47, remembers a childhood of games in the street, riding his bicycle in the Pedion tou Areos which once had uniformed guards and gardeners, and the long-gone playground. The old municipal market was a focal point, the shops in and around it always busy. «There were lots of good cinemas, the Kypselaki, the Kypseli, Rialto, Roxy, Lusitania, Attikon, but all of them have closed down now, converted into supermarkets, billiard halls or parking facilities, that is if they haven’t been demolished,» he recalled. He grew up in an apartment in Evias Street in a small building with no elevator. «When I was in primary school (1967-72) the building was full of children my age or a little older. We would play in each other’s homes – it was like a vertical playground – or outside in the park. Later some of them moved into larger homes, until by high school there were only a few left. The old owners departed and new tenants came in, some of them students from the provinces. Only the older ones have stayed on. Then the first family of Albanians moved in to the basement flat, then later bought it. At the moment, about a third of the building is inhabited by foreigners, mostly Albanians.» Chrysoula Georgoulopoulou, a resident of the district from the old days, heads the Friends of Kypseli Association that is trying to save historic Fokionos Negri Street from the signs of the times. «Our apartment building was the first built after the war. The very best families lived here. Kypseli changed after 1990 when a large number of foreigners moved in. What can you do? They are people too, and need somewhere to live. The biggest problem is with the cafes; they operate without a license and make a lot of noise and tons of garbage. The music is so loud that the houses shake. If you protest, as many neighbors have done, the proprietors tell them if they don’t like it they can leave. We have collected 4,000 signatures for a petition, but they don’t understand. We have nowhere to go. They should respect old Kypseli,» she says. Mitsi Vrasidanopoulou, a translator, was born and bred in the district. Her high-ceilinged apartment in Lela Karayianni Street is beautiful with wide verandas and a view of the square, but the sight is not a pleasant one. «Generally in Kypseli there are many things to get angry about. The deliveries to supermarkets, the garbage, too many cars. But I love it, I wouldn’t leave. What bothers me most is that the old neighborhood is disappearing, the old buildings collapsing. The memories aren’t being preserved.» Vrasidanopoulou almost left back in the 1980s. «We didn’t like the encroaching concrete, the fact that most of our friends had left, mostly out toward the northern suburbs. The district had lost its social fabric and something very important – people who cared about their neighborhood. But nowhere else compares with here and we realized that we didn’t want to leave our neighborhood which although changed, was still familiar. People still stop you in the street and ask how your children are. The local supermarket even gives credit. Of the old haunts, the Au Revoir in Patission is still there. It would be a crime if that closed. There are still a few of the smaller shops but most of them have been replaced by call centers. But even they have become a familiar site, as have the immigrants who congregate at the kiosk every afternoon to drink a beer and chat.» (1) This article appeared in the May 13 issue of Kathimerini’s supplement K.