City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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Virtues, Sweepers and Changing Values

The various urban (re)development projects such as mega-infrastructures, shopping malls, transport networks etc. built during the so-called golden period of the Greek construction sector (Tarpagos 2010) namely during 1990s-2000s, led to a transformation in real estate prices around Athens. But it was not only the exchange values of real estate that changed, the symbolic values attributed to parts of the cityscape also changed. The new social perceptions of the new, renewed and old Athenian materialities were linked with a proportion of the city center falling into “material decay”. Simultaneously, marginalized social groups—such as undocumented refugees—started to replace the better-off classes as the latter moved out of some central Athenian neighbourhoods (Maloutas 2007, 2004; Kandylis, Maloutas, and Sayas 2012; Arapoglou and Sayas 2009). Yet, this is not a clear-cut and rapid process of socio-spatial segregation, since Athens socio-spatially is porous (see, e.g., Stavrides 2007; Maloutas 2007; Leontidou 2012), but still it was/is a very explicit process.

Within that context, on the antithetical pole of Syntagma’s brightness, in the popular imagination, some urban sites were becoming emblematic of the “decaying” central Athenian materialities and socialities. One such site is the Omonoia Square and its surrounding areas. Besides Syntagma, Omonoia is one of two large squares in the center of Athens. Omonoia and its surrounding streets were the central transport hub of Athens until the construction of the Athens Metro, which established Syntagma as the central station of the new network in the late 1990s. Omonoia is the terminal station of the old Athens electric rail network, linking its two lines, while buses connecting the city center with the intercity bus station terminate near Omonoia. But the Square is also the most central point proximate to Athens Railway Station, while Omonoia is in fact a roundabout with highways leading toward almost every direction of the urban complex. Until recently, various public services such as courthouses serving Athens were located there, while Omonoia was in the heart of the Athens’ commercial center with the thousand shops of the center, hotels and catering businesses having it as their geographic reference point. The area was and remains a very busy central point and for decades it has embraced an impressive mix of activities.

However, new economic realities and lifestyles such as the increased ownership of private vehicles but also a new wave of urban development projects, e.g., new transport infrastructures linked to a more car-centric urbanexpansion into nearby suburbs or the building of many new shopping malls outside the center of the city, contributed to the change of Omonoia’s materialities along its symbolic and exchange values. So gradually in the 1990s and particularly the 2000s along the formal and “normal” activities, Omonoia was identified with a number of marginalized activities and diverse urban outcasts.

Nevertheless, one needs to explain that other central districts in close proximity to Omonoia (for example, Psyrri, Gazi, and Monastiraki) during the 1990s and 2000s were regenerated partly (see, e.g., Gospodini 2009). Building on the spontaneous Athenian urban palimpsest (Leontidou 1990) this regeneration led to an extreme mix of activities, with e.g. the same urban block at the same time hosting posh bars, dwellings of undocumented migrants, abandoned workshops and prostitution houses - making that proximate otherness much more visible though. Yet gradually within 1990s and 2000s, the popular, stereotypical view of Omonoia has increasingly been that of a site of “decay” occupied by people of low social status and their activities. The cheaper hotels or accommodations along the square became poors’ or migrants’ dwellings, homelessness has become more visible in that area, and some of the most stigmatized preexisting urban activities in the area have acquired even more negative connotations. For example becoming periodically the central hub for heroin dealing or sex industry or simply being an area where a lot of migrants live, characterized popular (negative) representations of Omonoia by the end of 2000s.


The Virtues and Sweepers of Athens

A crucial role in the ways that the wider society perceived the area of Omonoia - closely linked with the real estate prices- was played by novel ways of policing the city. First of all one should start by stating that during the period of economic growth and the consequent crisis, the number of police officers in Greece increased from 45,389 in 1998 to approximately 61,000 in 2012 (see Dalakoglou 2013). But there were also qualitative changes in the policing over the past 20 years, including the development of specialized units and more sophisticated tactics, particularly regarding public protest. But the new logic of policing also involved novel ways of targeting certain social groups, such as the national “Other,” namely migrants, but also the politically “deviant” (anarchists and the far left). This means that the new forms of policing targeted initially urban sites, rather than social groups such as “the anarchists” or “the foreigners” (Vradis 2013). Eventually, the targeting of the respective social groups did occur as well, but only after media blitz by the police and government. Using a press release “industry” hosted by the corporate media, popular pairings were established, such as the Exarcheia area with anarchists and the Omonoia area with foreigners and undocumented migrants. An example of how such processes may have created perceptions of urban spaces or social groups can be found in Michael Herzfeld’s (2011) recent account of the aftermath of being robbed in Athens: An officer at the police department more or less forced him to state that the robber was a “foreigner”.

So an important part of the social biography of Omonoia area is the aforementioned heightened policing of the 1990s. Although anti-migrant policing is a nationwide phenomenon, within the inner city (Dalakoglou 2011) the Omonoia area became the emblematic site of such operations. The story starts in early 1990s, when the Greek police introduced “Operation Sweeper.” Sweepers were in fact semi-military operations within urban terrain, often centered in Omonoia and supposedly targeting undocumented migrants. These were including blockades of entire areas, rapid raids on streets, squares, and buildings, culminating in taking detainees to concentration points where many of them were made to kneel on the ground, involving verbal abuse and physical attacks. It is worthy to mention that a notable increase in “Sweepers” took place just before the 2004 Olympics. The aim was to “clean” Omonoia’s public façade and unwanted elements to be pushed toward less-visible areas of the center, such as Agios Panteleimonas Square (see Dalakoglou and Vradis 2011).

Since August 2012, another mass operation against migrants has been unfolding in the center of Athens, especially in Omonoia, This is called “Xenios Zeus” and it resembles “Sweepers”. Between August and November 2012, of the 54,751 “foreigners” stopped and searched by Xenios Zeus in central Athens, 3,996 of them were arrested for lacking proper documents while 33 were arrested for breaking other laws. Those arrested under Xenios Zeus are held in new detention centers that opened around the country in the spring and summer of 2012. Police reports that nearly every night since August 2012 stop-and-search operations have targeted migrants in the center of the city. Yet obviously Xenios Zeus reveals that the promoted by the government idea that migrants break the law en mass is a complete fraud. Since the lack of the proper migratory documents is mainly linked with the Greek State apparatuses which administrate the application procedure making notoriously hard for migrants to apply for legalization of their existence in the country.

But as was mentioned above migrants are not the only group targeted by the police in central Athens the last couple of decades. Beginning in the 1980s, new forms of policing in central Athens ensnared certain radical political groups again via targeting certain areas. One such area is the Exarcheia neighborhood in central Athens, which has a high concentration of left-wing and anarchist publishers, bookshops, political projects, and individuals with such political affiliations. So Exarcheia became one of the first downtown sites in post-dictatorial (after 1974) Greek history where semi-military police operations “Operations Virtue” took place. Virtue were similar to Sweepers in many ways, hundreds of police officers often blockade and storm large sections of the neighborhood, detaining mainly youth who do not look “proper.” Operations Virtue officially stopped in the 1980s but similar operations with varying regularity still take place until today in the area. In the late 2000s, Exarcheia was regularly under police siege and the streets leading to the neighborhood were systematically policed at night (Vradis 2013).

Crucial for such operations have been the riot-police units (Public Order Restoration Units=MAT) which comprise part of the police special force. In 1976, the young then parliamentary democracy introduced MAT—the main anti-protest police unit— in order to militarize policing because the radical Left, which had overthrown the junta, would not tolerate army intervention on the streets. But throughout the post-dictatorial period, the political opposition of the street (Giovanopoulos and Dalakoglou 2011) in Exarcheia or wherever it occurred, potentially could be targeted with the semi-military tactics of MAT. But the counter-Left or counter-protesting police operations targeting the political minority, gradually had little impact on the silent majority of mainstream citizens, many of whom did not participate in public protests during the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, most people had no real understanding of how militarized and brutal the policing of public political actions had become.

In the late 1990s, new models of policing start being implicated signifying an expansion of extreme policing beyond the existing at the time limits. For example, since the 1990s the MAT when they do not control protests, or carry out “sweepers” and “virtues”, they widely employ “static patrol” tactics. This is MAT buses parked in central points within the metropolitan complex while officers around the bus guard the passages, often holding machine guns. Another example is the generalization of stop-and-search operations that occurs since 1990s with their glorification after the 2004 Olympic Games. In the case of one such “preventive” stop and search operation, the “Operation Polis” of 2005, for instance, police reported that over 226,000 people and 150,000 vehicles were searched.

Giving imaginative names to a violent operation is a military tactic, which police adopted for their large scale operations within urban terrain. These names are chosen involving an impressive irony, e.g. “Xenios Zeus” (the ancient god of hospitality) for a racist anti-migratory operation, or pretty realistically e.g. “Polis” representing the way that Greek Police wants the city to look like. Altogether, the transformation of urban materialities that took place in 1990s and 2000s in Athens was combined with increasing securitization and policing which had a crucial role in the ways that the values within the city changed.


byDimitris Dalakoglou



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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...