A tale of two cities

When you try to analyze Athens in 2010, it is difficult to know which Athens you are talking about. Is it the vibrant, progressive city that seems to regenerate itself without the intervention of any authorities, where super-cool bars, relaxed cafes, proud independent stores and cozy tavernas sit comfortably next to majestic ruins and thousands of years of culture? Or is it the dysfunctional metropolis where the citizens follow the authorities’ lead, heaping neglect and disinterest on their surroundings, allowing trash to be thrown anywhere, immigrants to live in squalor and petty criminals to take over the city’s historic heart? It has become evident in recent years that as incongruous as it may seem, Athens is both of these cities. Like learning to live with an erratic lover who can be both inspirational and infuriating, we came to accept that these were the two faces we would see for the rest of our lives. However, not everyone is prepared to put up with this situation anymore. Storeowners and hoteliers who are feeling the pinch of the economic crisis no longer accept losing custom because of the negative images of Athens that are beamed around the world. Restaurateurs and bar owners are no longer willing to accept their customers being put off by the growing presence of petty and sometimes more serious crime in parts of the city center. There is evidence of this growing disquiet in a report published this week by the Ombudsman, which is based on «hundreds» of complaints by residents, business owners and people who work in the city center. The watchdog slams the inertia and disorganization that has allowed thousands of undocumented migrants to gather in central Athens, where they live in unhealthy conditions and can be easily exploited, while allowing crime to thrive. The report details how streets like Menandrou, Geraniou, Kleisthenous, Aghiou Constantinou, Athinas, Socratous and Evripidou fill many locals and visitors with trepidation. A survey made public last week suggested that bookings at hotels in central Athens had fallen by 16.5 percent in May this year compared to the same month in 2009. Those outside the center suffered a smaller decline of 11.3 percent. Hoteliers are in no doubt that crime and a climate of unrest have been responsible for the higher downturn. Parliament’s environment committee also produced its own report on the city center’s woes. «This is not a problem that can be solved by holding competitions for architectural designs and pilot schemes because the luxury of time does not exist,» said the committee chairman, Costas Kartalis. His comments, which prompted a war of words with Athens Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis, may have been harsh but they seem to ring true. The message from those who live and work in the center is clear: «Time is running out.» Action – concerted, comprehensive action – is needed now. The government appears ready to map out a strategy for tackling the problem, which will involve the coordination of seven ministries. It seems that Prime Minister George Papandreou is taking a personal interest in the matter but given his workload, we cannot expect him to oversee the scheme himself. If it is going to be successful, it will involve ministers, lower-ranking politicians and City Hall officials putting their personal and political differences aside and working together as professionals for the good of the city. They have to make Athenians believe that a transformation for the better is possible and motivate each citizen to play his or her part. If they need any inspiration, then they only have to look at the way that Exarchia residents have reclaimed their public spaces from various nefarious characters. If this can be replicated on a larger scale, then we can start creating a single city which we can all love with a passion rather than forever drifting between two different worlds.

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