By Josh Ferry Woodard
Athens, the cradle of Western civilisation and birthplace of democracy, is a sweltering basin of a city littered with ancient ruins and flanked by hilltop viewing points.
With a history as sparkling and significant as Athens’, the city may never lose its charm to international visitors. However, in recent years a deep economic crisis and high levels of unemployment have marred the Hellenic capital.
But the city refuses to be beaten and residents are responding to the crisis through a number of inspiring community-driven projects.
Following the financial crash of 2007-08, Greece was hit harder than most. A culmination of unsound public finances and the global recession pushed the nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
After a series of harsh austerity measures–tax hikes, pension reductions, redundancies, spending cuts etc.–the Greek government secured a new loan deal in the summer of 2015 to keep the nation afloat.
But living standards are now starting to improve and Herculean efforts of citizen solidarity are paving the way for a brighter future.
The Atenistas are a grass-roots group of proud Athenians who are responding to the crisis in a variety of inspiring ways. One of their most prominent initiatives is the rejuvenation of public places in order to encourage community engagement.
Speaking in the hustle and bustle of inner city Monastiraki Square, Nadia, an active member of the Atenistas since 2011, tells me that it’s not the city but the citizens that matter to the group:
“We want people to realise the enormous potential of the city. Some of our most important work is transforming abandoned public places into parks and playgrounds.”
Nadia points me to some before and after photos of urban renewal sites the Atenistas have worked on. The contrast is stark:
A crumbling structure, scorched with Molotov cocktail marks and stained with unsightly graffiti, is transformed into a clean, livable house.
A gravelly wasteland beside a tenement building is converted into a welcoming city park full of colour, with children’s swings, wooden pathways and replanted trees.
A dark neglected alley, inundated with trash and offensive graffiti, is revitalised by a beautiful cityscape wall mural and some upcycled public seating made from painted pallets and planter boxes.
“The idea is to create welcoming spaces that encourage interaction between local people. We cannot change the world but we can change a neighbourhood,” says Nadia.
The Atenistas have performed well over 200 actions since they started back in 2010. Most of the time they pick an appropriate spot, either that they have noticed or somewhere that has been brought to their attention by local residents, and put out a call for willing helpers to meet there at a certain time.
The group is not funded by any public or private institutions and they only accept material donations. This encourages people to become, what the Atenistas term, “active citizens”.
The process relies on hard graft, to clear and rebuild neglected spaces, but also on innovation and artistic flair, to transform the rundown into the welcoming.
“We have arranged for street artists to paint colourful murals at many schools all around the city,” says Nadia, beaming with enthusiasm. “We also like to arrange cultural events in historic neighbourhoods to bring joy to the people of Athens.”
Some of the group’s most impressive events include: hosting a Tango night in the grand remains of the former Peloponnese railway station, organising a Greek National Opera concert in the city’s central meat market and holding an outdoor Swing night in the historic Omonoia Square.
Athens’ Mediterranean location puts it right at the forefront of the migrant crisis. With poverty and unemployment at record levels, the influx of refugees creates a very difficult situation for the city and its residents.
However, the Atenistas, and other humanitarian groups, are doing their bit to accommodate those fleeing persecution and war.
Community kitchens and clothes banks have sprung up all over the city, offering free meals and garments to people in need.
“We also offer free language classes,” explains Nadia. “This helps not just to accommodate, but to integrate the refugees into the city.”
Opening up the city
Another method that the Atenistas use to create deeper links between residents is to offer guided tours in historic or unpopular neighbourhoods.
“These tours help to foster trust between individuals,” says Nadia. “They help people to feel safe in the city, to enjoy it.”
When visiting the bohemian district of Exarchia, which is traditionally viewed by the mainstream media as a ‘stronghold of dangerous anarchists,’ I am greeted by a selection of artisan producers selling honey, olive oil and cinnamon liqueur at small stands in the middle of a pleasant square.
My guide Dimitris tells me that many buildings serve as refuge for those made homeless by the economic crisis as well as asylum seekers. Police rarely frequent the area but many homes and communes feel no need to lock, or even shut, their doors.
Like the Atenistas, the people of Exarchia believe that trust is contagious.
A city worth fighting for
Sitting at the top of Strefi Hill, just 10 minutes’ walk from the anarchist neighbourhood, I gaze across the city at the almost endless patchwork of white, pale pink and beige blocky buildings.
The ancient Acropolis, where I watched the sky become tangled in glorious pink ribbons during a truly unforgettable sunrise the previous morning, stands proud at the top of a rocky outcrop on the other side of the city. The arresting 2,500-year-old landmark is, I believe, a constant reminder that Athens is a city worth fighting for.
In the distance, where the white ball of the sun is beginning to set, I can just about make out the Mediterranean Sea near the port of Piraeus.
The port, where most of the refugees enter the city, makes me think of the daunting task ahead.
In Greek mythology, the king Sisyphus was punished for his deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back and hit him, over and over again for eternity.
While, the Athenian hero Theseus was celebrated for his strength, bravery and wisdom. Considered the perfect Athenian, he fought the Minotaur, created democracy and provided for the poor and oppressed.
It certainly won’t be easy but, with such a strong community spirit and a tireless desire to help those in need, let us hope that the people of Athens can achieve feats similar to their hero Theseus, and not suffer a fate akin to the cunning king Sisyphus.
Source: Reader’s Digest