Stumbling across a Kypseli demolition

By pure chance I witnessed one of those dramatic moments in the history of Athens. The moon was full as I strolled down Kefallinias Street in the inner suburb of Kypseli. Feeling as if something had touched me on the shoulder, I turned and spotted a house without a roof, its walls already gaping. «Demolition,» I said, without quite believing it, as I watched the fine old mansion collapse. I took a closer look, thinking that surely they would at least preserve the facade. Three wooden doors remained upright, with a balcony above, then all of a sudden, I saw the sky. It was a shocking sight, but it also exercised a strange fascination. It was like seeing a work of art on fire. I went back last week, hoping I had been mistaken and would find at least part of the facade intact. The site had been cleared and the house had vanished, becoming one of the city’s ghosts. I couldn’t believe that they were still knocking down grand old houses in the heart of Kypseli. It was like reliving memories from my childhood, when all Athens was a building site. Houses went down, apartment blocks went up and gardens became apartments. Images came to me briefly of mansions which, had they survived, would have been snapped up by foundations, museums and embassies. Of course I had realized in recent years that lovely houses in many neighborhoods were being exchanged for apartments to be built on the same site when they had been demolished, leaving not even a photograph as a legacy. But the building on Kefallinias Street was not just any little house; it was a large mansion. It was like the other one a bit further down on the corner of Kefallinias and Drosopoulou streets, which has been fully renovated and is now a neighborhood attraction. The jolt of witnessing the demolition made me look at that street in Kypseli in a different light. Going back, I realized that it was an image of Athens writ small. Apartments from the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s; older houses, some deserted, others extremely well kept (like the one a bit further down at 43 Tinou Street); and amid them a newer, 10-story block which looks out of place at 21 Kefallinias. Nearby are three theaters, Kykladon Street, Kefallinias Street and Topos Allou (in an old house at 17 Kefallinias). Then there’s the Artists’ Corner club, at number 41, in one of the lovely houses built in that area from 1925. At number 45, another old but renovated house, I saw a superb head of Hermes used as a lintel, while the number on 25 Kefallinias is written in genuine 1970s style. There was a bewildering amount to see. At 28 Kefallinias, an accountancy firm offers «services for foreigners,» and the clinic next door at 26 is called Doctor’s Hospital. My glance shied away from the aesthetically repulsive Parish Center of the Athens Archbishopric (with its pseudo-Byzantine cement facade), but dwelt on number 47, where a 70-year old apartment block exuded interwar modernism. I was back at the demolition site, where I could now make out the traces of the old house on the next-door apartment building. A large clearing had been created. The gap formed by the demolition now bordered on an existing car park at number 40, formerly the site of a mansion, of which only a scrap of the facade survives. What struck me was the vegetation. At the back of the garage was a large ailanthus and to the left a tall pine tree. It brought to mind talk some years ago of joining together the uncovered spaces belonging to apartment blocks and making gardens. The rear view of another old building had been revealed by the demolition – an attractive sight of maroon wooden shutters and ivy. I went back to the street for another look at the old apartments. Among some poorly made examples I spied some very appealing ones from the 1950s (at numbers 32, 34, 35, 29 and 23), but inevitably I started straying along the pedestrian zone of Kouna Traka and Eptanissou with the bitter orange trees in blossom. Eventually the facades and shadows in the street began to look familiar. The leaves on the white poplar outside number 39 rustled and for a moment I felt as if I was far away. A glass building protruded from an old neoclassical house, and as I crossed Kykladon I saw two Asian women, cloaked form head to foot. I had just seen an old woman peeping out from behind a curtain in a ground-floor apartment. A kid was playing football on a third-floor balcony. Two Africans were chatting on the corner. Gorky was on at Kefallinias Theater, Dostoevsky at the Kykladon and Beckett at Topos Allou. A tattered sports paper lay on the pavement. I’d never realized that Kefallinias Street was an entire Athenian continent.