Decline & decay

Athens recently inaugurated its grand new museum to house masterpieces from the Acropolis, drawing international attention to the city and much positive coverage at a time when the economic crisis has rocked the tourism industry. Like the 2004 Olympics, albeit on a much smaller scale, the opening of the Acropolis Museum was a godsend of positive images that no marketing campaign could ever hope to match. Athenians involved in the tourism sector and merchants in the city’s center breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that these images would erase the memory of the fires and mayhem the world saw during last December’s anarchist rampage. But their hopes are in danger of being smashed on the official incompetence and general indifference that has allowed the commercial heart of Greece’s capital to degenerate into a twilight zone in which unsuspecting tourists stare in shock as junkies stumble about them, muggers leap out of the shadows and rival drug pushers fight with each other. The «historic center» around Omonia Square houses several large hotels built or refurbished at great expense in the past two decades in a major investment in the city’s future. They are now at immediate risk because of the center’s rapid decline. At the same time, their location means that many tourists get to see the seedy side of Athens that most of the capital’s residents don’t even know. Leaving junkies and immigrants alone on the street without organizing an effective and humane way of managing the situation could only result in the problem getting worse. Instead of adopting serious policies to tackle thorny problems, our governments usually leave it to citizens, the police and the judiciary to deal with the situation. Now the rise in crime is driving away visitors and forcing businesses to close. Drug addicts and illegal immigrants find themselves at the mercy of pushers and gang bosses. Allowing the center to collapse under the weight of neglect is a serious enough problem with grave social consequences. But when that center is also at the heart of the capital’s tourism industry – within a short walk of the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum, and a brief metro ride from the Acropolis Museum – then it is unforgivable that public officials, police and prosecutors did not show sufficient interest in preventing this collapse. Now it will be far more difficult to limit the damage, let alone solve the problem. The government’s response so far has been the simple reflex of cracking down on immigrants. Police have been conducting extensive «sweeps» and have begun deporting illegal immigrants. This has raised concerns of human rights abuses. Detainees are stuck in overcrowded holding facilities, while the government tries to establish camps outside the city to house illegal immigrants (with no success to date). The result is that immigrants, in despair, will go further underground – and deeper into the embrace of criminals. Likewise, pushing the drug addicts into the shadows will not solve the problem but only allow it to build up pressure under the surface. The problems that plague Athens today have to be dealt with in a way that does not contradict the message of the bright new museum at the other end of the city’s center. Police measures must be part of an overall effort to solve the problems of drug addicts and immigrants, with the latter being given the chance to request asylum and, if this is rejected, they should be repatriated quickly after due legal process – not abandoned. The quality of our democracy in the streets is just as important as the legacy that we house in our splendid museums and incomparable archaeological sites. When visitors come to Athens they visit us, not our ancestors. They will judge us, not our ancestors.