Athenians are a fickle bunch when it comes to street names

I would love to have been at the low-key ceremony on September 7, 1945, when Athens officials formally renamed central Panepistimiou Street after the statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, who was at the event. I would love to have asked the municipal dignitaries how they felt about the fact that almost 70 years later, in the distant year of 2013, no one would be calling the major thoroughfare Venizelou Street, but would still refer to it as Panepistimiou.

Many of us won’t be around in 70 years to find out whether people still call Thiseio Square by its popular name or Jacqueline de Romilly, as it was recently renamed in honor of the late French classical scholar. At least we can hope that the Internet will still be around to inform future generations of the municipal council’s lack of enthusiasm for the accompanying ceremony.

If there is one thing that can be said about Athens it is that it’s never boring. The history of the Greek capital is full of stories of madness and political controversy, often against a humorous backdrop, about how streets and public squares have been given their names and what they’re called and why. The confusion is compounded by the sheer stubbornness of locals to adopt many new names given to well-known streets and squares, meaning that there are numerous locations that continue to be known by both their “official” and their “unofficial” names.

Panepistimiou, named after Athens University, which flanks it, is at the top of this long list of futile renaming attempts. It is joined by Patission, which from Omonia Square to the Marnis Street junction is still known as Odos Eikostis Ogdois Oktovriou, or 28th of October Street (which according to one urban myth was renamed after the anniversary of Greece’s refusal to side with Italy in World War II because the Italian Cultural Center was located on Patission and the Greek authorities wanted to rub their noses in it). Other examples are the stretch of Pireos Street near Omonia that is still known as Panaghi Tsaldari, after the late politician, or the main road that traverses Kallithea, which everyone knows as Thiseos, but is formally named Eleftheriou Venizelou.

It would also be interesting to find out how many Athenians are aware of the fact that part of coastal Poseidonos Avenue near Voula is named after Constantine Karamanlis, or that Kolonaki Square is actually named Filikis Eterias Square, that Kypseli Square is Kanari, Kennedy Square in Halandri is Flyas, City Hall’s Kotzia Square is Ethnikis Antistaseos (National Resistance) and Vathis is Anexartisias (Independence). Thankfully no one has messed with Omonia and it is still Omonia.

The fact is that many historical place names have been changed in response to political developments over the course of the decades and centuries. In Piraeus, for example, Vassileos Constantinou Street, named after former King Constantine, was renamed Iroon Polytechneio in commemoration of the victims of the Polytechnic uprising against the military dictatorship in 1973, and Vassilissis Sofias, named in honor of former Queen Sofia, was renamed Grigoriou Lambraki after the left-leaning activist who was assassinated by right-wing extremists in 1963. The new names have stuck to this day, as has been the case in many other parts of the capital as well. In the 1980s, for example, Issou Avenue in Zografou – named after Issus, the city where Alexander the Great won a great victory – was renamed after Olof Palme, the Swedish premier and close friend of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou who was assassinated in 1986. The street is still known as such today.

The 1980s were generally a busy period for street sign manufacturers, as socialist PASOK’s rise to power brought with it a flurry of new place names all over Greece which were aimed at showing that the country was turning over a new leaf after the end of the junta and wanted to celebrate the events and people who contributed to vanquishing the dictators.

That said, in contrast to Piraeus, Athens streets and squares named after former kings and queens have remained so.

The naming of streets, or lack thereof, was a huge problem in the nascent capital of Greece in 1880, when the city passed the symbolic threshold of 100,000 residents. Because of the massive expansion of the city and its rapid population boom in the late 19th century, most city streets were never named simply because there wasn’t enough time to keep track of them all. Needless to say, this created myriad problems for residents and visitors alike.

According to a publication in the magazine Estia from January 29, 1884, the capital at the time had some 440 streets and 23 public squares, only 160 and 12 of which respectively had names. The rest were simply called “Anonymous.”

The municipal council of Athens decided to name all streets and squares in January 1884, bringing much relief to the confused city residents.

A passage from an article in the Acropolis newspaper from January 25, 1884 sums up the situation nicely:

“By naming the streets, from now on we will be asked where a street is and we will no longer have to answer with: Turn right here, go down to the left, then head up toward Lycabettus and turn to the Acropolis, and other such vague descriptions that mean nothing at all… Before one had to visit every grocer, butcher and baker to be given directions to the house with the shutters, the one with the big door, the one with the low or high balcony, the green moldings and other such idiocy. You needed to go round and round, sweating and embarrassed, using all of your powers of divination, entering strange doors and being chased away, at times by anger and at others by disapproving looks, cursing as you leave the lack of propriety that is so unique to Greece.”

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