Could Omonia reclaim its status as the heart of Athens? But the heart of which Athens? Of the real Athens? Of the imaginary Athens? Or of the desirable Athens? Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis, who has been credited with the effort to revamp Omonia Square (in partnership with the private sector), had every reason to be satisfied with Thursday’s rehearsal, as it were.
“Let us love [this square] all over again,” he said in a message posted on social media. He also posted a video of the spectacular colorful fountain at the center of the square.
Past experience suggests that the word “revamp” tends to trigger a reflex of fear for the worse among Athenians rather than hope for the better. Omonia Square has suffered in a variety of many different ways. In the early 1990s, the fountain was removed due to construction work for the Athens metro. A revamp on the occasion of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games eliminated the circular traffic pattern around the square. Also, there were cases where architecture tenders went to waste as the winning design was not implemented in full.
The history of the square is the stuff of popular songs. But it is also a sad history. It has attracted a motley mix: the deification of intention and the devastation of defeat, politically expedient interest and genuine indifference, the chronic Greek allergy to public space and the lure of easy money. That was until the moment that the financial crisis transformed the broader area into a war zone: human wrecks, abandoned buildings, gangs, drug dealing and trafficking.
Omonia and its side streets became no-go areas. The city was cut up in pieces. From Stadiou Street and the sad friction between the different institutions that is holding the twin Attikon-Apollon cinemas to ransom (eight years after the building was partly destroyed by firebombs thrown by protesters during a violent riot), to Patission Avenue and the other hotspot around the National Technical University of Athens, the Athens University of Economics and Business, and the Acropole Palace (a former hotel and now the property of the Culture Ministry), which remains frustratingly unexploited following its extensive renovation, like an empty shell.
Indeed, Omonia is the heart. And the spectacle of a beautiful square can have multiple benefits, aesthetic and psychological. But in order to regain its footing, the city will first have to retrieve its missing parts. Or we will continue to live on lit-up islets in the middle of dark, uncharted waters.