Downtown’s state within a state

I don’t know how many handbags correspond to each woman in Greece, but it must be quite a few if one is to judge by the number of handbag vendors on the streets of Athens and other parts of the country. Coming out of Monastiraki metro station and looking right toward Pandrossou Street, there is just a small space left for pedestrians between the African handbag sellers and the Greek fruit merchants. You have to look up at the Acropolis to remind yourself that you are still in Europe rather than in some Middle Eastern souk. Monastiraki Square has been closed off for reconstruction. Metal sheeting engulfs this smoggy part of town that has high hopes of becoming a public square worthy of a capital city. Monastiraki must be one of Athens’s most luckless neighborhoods. During the dictatorship it was assaulted by lousy architecture. Some of the city’s most abysmal constructions line Iphaistou and Athinas streets (in any other European capital they would have been torn down years ago), but our supposed sensitivity for the capital’s historical heritage is thoroughly exposed when one sees the state of decline of Hadrian’s Library and the mosque housing the V. Kyriazopoulos Collection of Folk Pottery, a branch of the Museum of Greek Folk Art that belongs to the Ministry of Culture. No one dares challenge the shopkeepers on Pandrosou Street. A string of tourist shops have used one wall of Hadrian’s Library to prop up their makeshift stores, while the mosque, an 18th century edifice and one of the few remnants of Ottoman Athens (though it is not particularly attractive), is perched on another row of such shops. If Turkey had left a Greek Orthodox church in such a state, you can be sure we would protest. There might well be, but we are in the European Union and should know better by now. The Monastiraki phenomenon is not new nor is it confined to that part of town. There used to be many such areas of Athens, such as around the Arsakeion Mansion on Panepistimiou Street. The ground floor of the neoclassical mansion designed by Lysandros Kaftantzoglou was occupied by tatty stores, but renovation work returned it to its original splendor. In Monastiraki, time stands still. It’s not enough that Plaka is covered in graffiti, now Monastiraki has been allowed to sink into a state of complete decline. Areos, Athinas and Ermou streets are all the same. When a patrol car cruises down the street, the vendors hasten to bundle up their wares. This is Athens, but who is kidding who? The authorities, in this case the municipality, are hostage to their own brand of phobia. They are afraid to take on a handful of voters and unwilling to put their ears to the ground, as a city that was on the verge of coming out of its rut is now sliding back in.