Citizens urge Athens mayor to take action

All of a sudden, Athinas Street is full of balloons. A red double-decker bus comes to a halt and the tourists on board seize the opportunity to record the unexpected sight on their digital cameras. They don’t understand the words written on the balloons but they do enjoy the commotion. When the bus sets off again, they catch a glimpse of the human chain that has encircled Athens City Hall. And if their tour guide is any good, they get a translation of the slogans on the balloons: «Theloume dimarcho» (We want a mayor). The midday happening on June 30 in downtown Kotzia Square was organized by the Citizens’ Movement to Save the Historic Center. Local residents had gathered in the heat of the midday sun to make a protest to Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis. The text they handed out to passers-by was forthright: «The residents, workers and entrepreneurs in the historic center of Athens and adjacent areas seek a mayor (and a city council) who will spearhead our campaign and exert pressure on the ministries of the Environment and Public Works, Interior, Health and Public Order by formulating and submitting a fully fledged plan to refurbish and preserve Athens’s historic center. «We seek a mayor (and a city council) who will clean up the center of this city, since it is solely their responsibility. We seek a mayor (and a city council) that will at least restore the city to the state it was in when they took it over in 2006.» On Kleisthenous Street, one block down behind City Hall, there’s no sign of the nightmarish ghetto that brought all these people out into the streets. With exemplary cleanliness and not a hint of illegal activity, the atmosphere is almost idyllic. Shopkeeper Apostolis Zisis, who has run a business on Kleisthenous Street for the past 20 years, sounds relieved. But the damage has been done, he explains. «It will take 10 years for the stain on our reputation to fade. These things go in cycles and they take time. » Next to his store, the popular bistro Hell’s Kitchen is seeing the first signs of recovery after weeks of worry. Most of the tables are empty, but the five or six groups eating indoors are a hopeful sign. «In the past month, we’ve become like Kolonaki,» commented one of the proprietors, Lefteris Papatryfonas, in a half-joking comparison to the upscale Athenian neighborhood. «The police sweeps started after Easter, and intensified in the runup to the European Parliament elections.» Papatryfonas spoke of regular police foot patrols and the sense of security that is gradually returning to the district. Not that he is optimistic: «A month ago, I was ready to give up; we didn’t know what to do with the business. Now I don’t know what to say. We’re waiting. We have to win over our customers again from scratch, one by one.» So what was the point of the protest in Kotzia and public pillorying of the mayor? In an immaculately clean pharmacy in Theatrou Square I get the answer. A customer butts in gently to an optimistic conversation with the pharmacist. «Come a bit further down to where I live, on Agisilaou Street, and you’ll see why Theatrou Square has been cleaned up. They’ve pushed all those people to the other side of Pireos Street, to Zinonos, Kerameikou and Agisilaou. It’s a nightmare.» Vasso Nikolakopoulou, president of Panathinaia, the local residents’ association, confirms his perceptions: «We want a fully fledged plan, not police sweeps that just shift the problem from one neighborhood to another.» She releases an orange balloon, which floats away behind City Hall.