The signs of neglect and vandalism that one encounters while exploring the Nea Philadelphia Park in northern Athens is depressing, to say the least. The park appears to have been turned into a dump used by Nea Philadelphia and Nea Halkidona, once separate municipalities that have now been merged into one as part of a streamlining program for local authorities.
The former zoo, meanwhile, has been used to house dozens of stray cats and dogs since the cleanup prior to the 2004 Olympics. The snack bar and restaurant area is boarded up, few children dare to venture into the playground, and the artificial lake, once the park?s crowning glory, is a cesspool long bereft of fish and ducks.
Even sadder is the sight of derelict projects initiated by a series of ambitious mayors, such as 13 sad-looking wooden gazebos, two of which are now burnt-out shells, and the open-air theater that once hosted plays in the summer and has now crumbled into rubble.
?Every mayor who has passed through Nea Philadelphia has seen the park as a dead end that could not generate any revenues,? said a member of a local environmental group, who preferred to remain anonymous. When plans were made, he said, they tended to be of an outlandish nature, such as installing an elevated railway system and subterranean fish farms.
The Nea Philadelphia Park is actually a woodland area. It is some 47 square hectares and belongs to the forestry department of the Attica Regional Authority, which has ceded its use to the municipality. While the park is within the municipality?s building zone, it is listed as a woodland area and therefore any construction activity that includes felling trees needs to be approved and specially licensed.
?When the snack bar and restaurant were built, we ended up filing a claim with the Council of State [the country?s highest administrative court], which ruled that the unlicensed extension of the original restaurant would have to be torn down,? explained the source.
Something similar happened with a church that is located on the premises of the park. ?It started out as a small chapel, grew into a proper church and ended up with a paved courtyard to host wedding receptions, for which trees were cut down,? said the activist.
Opinions in the local community vary regarding what should be done with the ugly and illegal constructions that dot the park. The environmental group believes that they should be knocked down and the owners fined, so as to set an example. Others suggest a more compromising approach, saying that in future the structures could be legalized and put to use.
The deputy mayor in charge of green spaces, Fotis Nikolopoulos, is of the latter school of thought, saying that the municipality is looking for a legal argument to get the restaurant, which was once very popular and lucrative, back into operation.
Likewise, another eatery, called Tsipouradiko, was opened in a building next to the park?s open-air movie theater which once housed a youth center. Local authorities are now proposing that the space be used to house the municipal day center for the elderly, which is currently in a rented space that costs the municipality 6,000 euros a month, according to Haris Tombouloglou, who represents the main opposition SYRIZA party on the municipal council. Tombouloglou also expressed concern about the poor security in the park, saying that an absence of guards has attracted unsavory sorts at night.
What hurts the locals most, however, is the sorry state of the park?s lake, which, according to Nikolopoulos, fell victim to political wrangling.
?A budget for the cleanup of the lake was never voted through by the opposition as it should have been in spring. This is a process that should have been completed by May, which is the start of the fire season, as the lake is used as a resource for firefighting and irrigating the park,? the deputy mayor said.
The environmental group, meanwhile, is more concerned by the fact that the lake has become a breeding ground for mosquitos, while also warning that an electricity substation located in the park to provide power to filter and light the lake is a major fire hazard.
At the end of the day, it seems that the park?s biggest problem is the slipshod policies of authorities in the past and a complete lack of foresight on the part of the authorities today.