Grassroots initiative to reclaim Exarchia Sq is producing results

Even the oldest of Exarchia’s residents are ready to admit that they haven’t seen anything like it before, and the neighborhood kids just can’t believe it. «I’ve been living here all my life and it’s the first time I’ve hung out on the square; not in one of the coffee shops but on the actual square,» says Antonis, a 16-year-old from a local high school as he kicks around a soccer ball with his friends in this much-maligned area of downtown Athens. For about a month now, an initiative has been under way to reclaim the main square of Exarchia, which for years has been overrun by drug users. Residents and shop owners don’t like to talk about it too much: «It’s still early,» «Let’s not jinx it,» «Don’t write anything yet, let’s see how it goes,» they say – but their satisfaction with this accomplishment is evident. It all started one Saturday following an unfortunate event, one of the many of its kind that used to take place on the square. Drug addicts tried to grab a woman’s handbag. «The woman ran away and didn’t look back,» said one eyewitness. «I remember there were three or four of us. We stared at each other; it was obvious we were thinking the same thing. This was the final straw in a situation that had been building up for decades. We felt in part responsible for what had happened to the woman.» Without thinking too much about it, the shopkeepers set up a table, a few chairs and a microphone on the square and began shouting: «No more drugs on the square.» «We were not exactly sure what we were doing; it was completely spontaneous,» explains one of the shop owners. In the days that followed, their ranks began to swell with other concerned residents. The news spread across Exarchia by word of mouth. Residents, shopkeepers, students, teachers and people working in bars and cafes embraced the initiative. Pamphlets were printed and distributed. It was as if the neighborhood was rising up. «It was time we did something, rather than expect others to do it for us,» says one resident. Gradually, the unsavory regulars of the square began to fade away. It was a pleasant surprise for the locals but it was not until the first children showed up that they realized the extent of what they had accomplished. «It was moving to see children playing on the square. Most of us hadn’t seen that before,» commented another resident. Today, the scene at Exarchia Square has nothing to do with that of a month ago. It is clean for one thing, thanks to residents who take it upon themselves to sweep it and tidy it up every day. It is cool as the trees and plants are getting watered more regularly, again by locals. Mainly, however, the square is lively, as instead of drug addicts there are children playing basketball, chess, backgammon and soccer, elderly citizens relaxing on park benches and groups of students hanging out. Without having to resort to any violence or to the police, and with no fuss at all, the local residents seem to have pulled off what officials had failed to do for decades: drive the crime and fear out of a major city square. As many have pointed out, the situation had gotten out of hand. Police patrols had increased but drugs were still being dealt in plain sight. «We know that this initiative hasn’t solved the big problems; it has just displaced them. The drug addicts who left the square have gone some place else. They are sick and someone should look after them, but the state of the square really needed to change,» added another local resident. «Today was the first time I have ever spent two whole hours there and I don’t think anyone can remember the last time they crossed the square at night.»