The PM’s talk sounded like it came from two decades ago when Greece was a “Construction Contractors Republic”. Back then the “steam engine” of the thriving Greek economic growth was the construction sector, and the country was indeed being rebuilt en masse. New and allegedly overpriced highways, airports, shopping malls, stadiums etc. conquered the cityscape. Back then a widespread optimism was growing in reference to the development of urban materiality, the newly funded virtual economy of credit, the forthcoming Olympic Games, the European Monetary Integration and the Europeanization/modernisation projects. “Development” and “modernisation” at that time were elevated into the main political slogans of the governments. Nevertheless, the rapid accumulation of built and virtual capital was soon followed by the economic bust.
Today a promise to fix the “problems” of Athens’ centre via some more urban development sounds pretty hollow, according to people who work, use or just exist on Panepistimiou street and the surrounding streets of the centre.
For example, one of the central Athenian merchants explained that many public works from that golden period of contractors had been catastrophic for certain businesses. The case of the repeated (but poorly explained) reconstructions of Omonoia Square the last twenty years is often quoted as such a project that altered violently the order of things in the centre of the city. Moreover, another informant talked about the pedestrianization of Ermou Street at the second half of the 1990s. Ermou is a street departing from Syntagma Square and it was traditionally one of the busiest commercial streets of the capital city. The project of its pedestrianization lasted for some time and by the end of it several of the smaller Ermou shops had been closed down. This happened first of all because the rents rocketed in the reconstructed street but also due to the decreased consumption, during the period of the construction works. However, another part of the problem was the wider global condition in the history of European capitalism. Namely, 1990s was a period when international retail chains entered the market of Greece, leading to the economic “death” of some of the smaller merchants. Ermou Street, where many of the shops of the early 1990s today have been replaced by branches of big international chains, is a witness of both the global process, but also the local urban peculiarity.
But a central Athens’ employee in retail sector explained that businessmen “took out their eyes, with their own hands”. In the recent past during the economic growth of 1990s and 2000s quite a few of the smaller independent merchants made big openings taking risks within a market that functioned under new –unknown before– rules. In order to do the openings they often took one of those high interest bank loans, which were too easily available at the time, leading eventually to their catastrophe when they could not pay back. For example, when all the new shopping malls were built around Athens some independent merchants expanded renting a unit in one of the new malls. However, a mall is a big corporation which does not allow for much flexibility with debts. Merchants who rent and do not own their shops sometimes have to ask the owner of the property (typically another middle-class person) for flexibility, which usually is provided, but indeed something like this is out of the question when you rent in a mall which is a big corporation.
However, such an observation refers to the recent past rather than the catastrophic present, a lot of independent merchants who made further ‘economic openings’ during the period of prosperity, when the crisis broke out, vanished overnight under the weight of quickly accumulating debts. “Some colleagues ended up in the soup kitchen”, mentioned a merchant on Agiou Markou Street. The association of Athens merchants, these days maintains a social grocery for its members, namely a shop were former shopkeepers can acquire some basic goods gratis. Today on central streets of Athens such as Stadiou there are former shop-keepers who own the retail properties where they were housing their shop, so they had no rent expenses, and yet still they went out of business after May 2010 due to decrease in consumption. The aforementioned retail worker, explained the temporality of their narrative: “Stupid movements of the businessman or problematic structure, this is past and forgotten now - now first they tell you to cut down salaries, because they are not doing well, then they cut down the personnel and then they end up working with one tenth of the employees, and them are just members of the boss’ family and then one day they close down for good.”
The politics of 'Rethinking'
Many merchants of Athens’ centre blame the recent increase of demonstrations and protests that take place in the centre of the city for the commercial failure of their businesses. The idea is that the revolt of 2008 was the first big strike to the centre of Athens, then it was the riots of May 2010 and then February 2012 riots. The truth is that one can hear this argument more and more in the corporate media ever since 2010 when the austerity started, and increasing portions of the population (including the shopkeepers) feel that they have better reasons to protest. However, the narrative of most shopkeepers does not identify straight-forwardly with the governmental/corporate media argument. When they use the term ‘demonstration’ (diadiloseis/διαδηλώσεις) or ‘riots’ (episodia/επεισόδια) they usually add ‘teargas’ (dakrygona/δακρυγόνα) and the blockade of every street or metro stations around the centre of the city. Whether expressed explicitly or implicitly, the fact is that teargas and violence, or the blockade of routes, are police tactics that have been applied increasingly the last years. Police these days close down most central metro stations and all the streets leading to the centre of the city, many hours before and after a protest march. During protests one can hear demonstrators claiming that the police are trying to limit access to protesters, but also to enrage the rest of the centre’s users, against the various social groups who protest.
The point is that while merchants in the first instance seem to agree with corporate media/government, most of the time they use a different phrasing and add different elements. For example while, the corporate media often add Molotov cocktails or the hooded protesters as part of the city centre’s problem, the business people I have met rarely refer to these elements. The different perspective of most merchants of the centre is even more explicit when they talk about the events of December 2008. In fact irrelevant of the politics implied in the rest of the language used, the merchants of the centre I have talked with, usually use the term ‘revolt’ for the revolt of 2008, instead of riots (epeisodia/επεισόδια) as most of the governmental and government friendly discourse label December 2008. Moreover, other wording used has been the ‘events of Alexis’ or ‘…of Grigoropoulos’ or ‘…Alexandros’ etc. referring to Alexandros Grigoropoulos, the 15 year old person who was assassinated by the police on December 2008, and whose death triggered the social uprising of 2008. This terminology of personification reflects much more the language used by the participants in the revolt rather than the authorities or the corporate media.
The bottom line is that merchants are running a business and they judge spatial tactics and spatial practices according to the impact they have to their custom. As one of them told me on one of the streets which once upon a time was the major commercial street of the capital city: “In the past, even if your shop was smashed, you did not care that much. We often did not even approach the insurance companies, we used to fix them ourselves, and we did not care because we had customers, at the same moment that we were fixing the damages.” Things are not that rosy anymore. Allegedly today that every single shopkeeper struggles to survive financially, insurance companies play major role in the situation of the centre, they do not even pay for damages occurring during protests or they ask for enormous fees in order to insure a business in the area. Until the recent past when properties were destroyed in Athens centre they were fixed quickly. But most of the buildings destroyed during the riots of February 2012 remain in ruins still in late May 2013, which is an unusually long period of time for that area. “When people’s pockets are empty, there is no reason to fix and open again a shop that for whatever reason closed down” concluded the same shopkeeper of the Athenian centre.
Certainly the centre of the city (contrary to what the decision-makers of ‘Rethink Athens’ may believe) does not have only commercial activities - one of the many things happening in the centre is also protesting. The problem is that the governments of the last few years seem to target very explicitly protesting, suggesting that it is the single problem of Athens centre. For example on April 27, 2013 the Greek minister of Public Order (Police) Nicos Dendias gave a brief interview to the Voice of America during his visit to NYC to exchange knowhow with FBI, in this interview he stated:‘Let me give you an example of a policy we are trying to implement and it will change the whole life of the capital city of the country […] it is the restriction of small demonstrations, demonstrations of 100-200 people, from closing the Athens city center, occupying the entire road preventing access to the center of Athens.’
Blaming demonstrations for the failure of businesses in the centre of the city has at least two benefits. First, it masks the fact that austerity policies, unemployment and cuts to the income prevent people from buying anything and second, is part of a wider attempt to limit protesting at a time that more and more people have increasing reasons to protest against the government. In fact today poverty has increased to the extent that gradually the majority are changing their eating habits. In other words people are forced to severely cut their food budget, so clothing or other needs are limited even more if not vanished. Under such circumstances several groups each week protest, hassling the various governmental plans.
The first steps of limiting and banning protests have been evident in the publicly performed police violence during protests. Since 2010 this violence has reached its post-dictatorial peak, with tear gas and beating up by police being used in industrial scale (e.g. June 2011 general strikes). In fact the evident aim is to terrorize those who may participate in protests, since anyone who dares to protest know that their health and wellbeing is in danger. But a much more evident spatialisation of the anti-protest policies came in 2011, when the government withdrew the so called academic asylum. Since the early 1980s the Greek constitution instructed that army or police should not access university grounds, unless the university authorities decide for such an action. Academic asylum is one of the main reasons that Panepitimiou street has emerged as the necessary part of almost every single protest march. Panepistimio (panepistimio/πανεπιστήμιο) in Greek means University, and Panepistimiou Street is where the University of Athens Refectory is located . The Square in front of the neoclassical Refectory was and still is the most common point for the gathering, departing and terminating of protest marches. The various university buildings during the history of Athens have been a haven for the protesters who have been chased down, beaten and attacked by the police. The central Athenian campuses functioned as centres of resistance both during the occupation of Athens by the Nazis and their Greek collaborators in the 1940s, and more famously during the anti-dictatorial resistance in the 1970s. Indeed, today universities are not a safe place anymore since police can raid them, restrict or ban any activity that takes place in there. The future erection of so many physical obstacles along the Panepistimiou Street of ‘Rethink Athens’ probably will lead to the end of Panepistimiou as part of protest marches.
The death of academic asylum, and the material regeneration of the main street of Athenian centre come at the same time with an explicit political decision to limit protest. In a profound move, since January 2013, almost every single major industrial action (metro workers, sailors and teachers) has been basically banned by the government in the name of public benefit, via the application of a very debateable law regarding civil conscription. But in May 2013 when the high school teachers’ strike was banned, their unions decided to start one of their first protest marches against the ban on the pedestrianized Ermou Street. A place where protests are located rarely. Perhaps that was an early semiological warning that one way or the other protests will not vanish from the city centre whatsoever material regeneration projects will be applied on Panepistimiou or elsewhere. Indeed they may vanish due to political reasons, e.g. if gatherings will be banned completely (indeed it is a possibility given the recent banning of strikes and the aforementioned statements of the Minster about limiting certain marches) but a simple reconstruction project will not be enough.
“One eats the other”
But capitalist competition and class structure in their purer form are not the only source of tension on the Athenian high-street. There are some more tangibly violent occurrences around the centre. These days around Omonoia or Kanigos Square, army-personnel-looking security guards walk in front of shops. One informant told me that they are working for the bank branches. Someone else said that the smaller shop-keepers received a good offer from a new private security company, which has pretty dangerous looking employees in order to kick out the homeless. When the sun sets, blankets and sleeping bags make their appearance in the arcades and the thresholds of the shops. The city centre is gradually transformed into a huge sleeping place in the nights, homelessness increases to unprecedented level. Additionally, these days a new cheaper drug, sisa, has appeared on the streets. Sisa has almost replaced the more expensive heroin, but sisa’s effects are much more severe. People lose their consciousness or are heavily tripping for hours – so homeless or not – addicted people often end up unconscious in the threshold of shops, with some businessmen blaming that situation for the bad fate of their enterprises. One way or the other, the point is that these private guards in all black military outfit seem to do the dirty job of keeping the urban poor out of public view in early morning.
Beyond the everyday violent encounters there is another process, violent as well but more structurally violent. This is phrased in various ways but one of the most common motifs seems to be the so called ‘interests’. Nobody seems to be sure but many people active in the centre of the city are angry with these “interests” (symferonta/συμφέροντα). This is a term referring abstractly to political or economic powers bigger than you (often including international agents) which act in an unethical way, having an impact to your everyday life. In the current case the implication is that there are agents who collaborate secretly for the drop of real estate prices in the centre of the city in order to devalue the properties and eventually buy them for peanuts. Although the rumour is more and more widespread and although in certain areas of the centre -such as Keramikos and Metaxourgeio- do emerge a tendency of companies which buy large number of properties, there is no evidence as yet for such an activity that aims at the entire centre of the city. 'Rethink Athens' will come in that deregulated real estate market changing anew the prices in the centre. But certainly the prices of real estate in Athens are in a free-fall. Some small independent merchants, feeling the pressure of the economic failure become verbal about the increasing structural unfairness of the new conditions implemented to the market the last fifteen years. Many blame explicitly the authorities that allegedly have done everything to pave the way for larger retail corporations to eliminate small independent shops and so to force the unwanted small/independent businesses to move out from the centre. The truth is that new infrastructures and big shopping malls have appeared en masse during the golden period of economic growth (1990s-2000s), within the centre but also in the Athenian suburbs altering radically the existing – back then – balances of the market. Moreover, there are various changes in policies the last decade which deregulate the market, a deregulation which has an impact to the smaller players, eliminating many of them. “But that’s the system, one eats the other, everyone is against everyone […] and so that’s the system, I have no different way to name it” a wise and cynical shopkeeper mentioned, in a bitter moment of realization.
 Although the term Athens centre refers to a large area with very different micro-histories, for the current text the word centre is used in reference to the area between Omonoia and Syntagma Square including the surrounding streets. (go back to text)
 Although the street was renamed Venizelou street on 1945, no single Athenian calls it anything else but Panepistimiou. (go back to text)