City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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Mass Transi(en)t

It is impossible to predict exactly when history is about to take one of its turns, but it is entirely possible to feel swivels prior. For such change to actually happen, a critical mass is required; a mass of people convinced that change is necessary or — perhaps more often so — convinced or coerced to believe the existent is insufficient, therefore prepared to allow for such change to take place.

At the moment of the commencement of this project, in the early fall of 2012, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Greek territory is navigating through a swiveling moment – apparent, at least, if you read the global press, if you follow the events from afar. Take a birds-eye view of the city of Athens and the sweeping change is far less visible. Masses of people still traverse the urban web, caught in the urgencies of the everyday. From afar, normality prevails.

A closer zooming in, a sustained focus on the ground and the depth of reshaping quickly reveals itself. Social relationships and political allegiances and alliances are swiftly reconsidered and reconfigured. From the “Movement of the Squares” of the summer of 2011, to the unexpectedly diverse riots of February 2012, to the altering of the mainstream political landscape following the elections of May and June the same year... And since? Central Athens feels the most deserted it has been in times memorable. A tangible feeling of withdrawal lingers. People retreat, but where to? Some, to the secluded safety of the domestic. Others chose to take a leap into spaces unknown; into migration. In a time of extremes, space can only follow in the footsteps of class and politics. Just like them, it is stratified, polarised, divided. One is increasingly either working or upper-class; the middle is pushed to the brink of extinction. In the political sphere being moderate is most untimely; radical times call for a radical stance, for an extreme position. In a city of ever-deepening dichotomies the concurrent reformulation of its space is staggering. On the one side rises the triumph of the private. A retreat into the dwelling; a conquering of functions domestic over public, open interaction. On the other side — and in face of this attack — public space is rejuvenated, reinforced, reshaped and extended, often-times in the most unexpected of ways, in the most unexpected of settings.

There might be few other spaces that symbolise and epitomise the routine of the everyday more than spaces of mass transit. The routine of commuting, the most indifferent temporal coexistence with strangers. In the mind of the contemporary urbanite, the spaces of mass transit are hardly public — or in any case, hardly possessing any of the positive qualities public space can potentially hold. They are liminal spaces (the pass-enger) carrying the urbanite from the private of the dwelling to the public of city life. For the more affluent urbanite, this liminality is avoided — the privacy of the dwelling extends itself in the privacy of the car. In Athens, a late-comer (and early-leaver) to the feast of post-industrial capitalism, vehicle ownership quickly became a transient symbol of a newly and unexpectedly-found prosperity. And now, at the moment when this prosperity vanishes — for many as swiftly as it had emerged — the ‘fallen angels’ of capitalism find themselves back into the bus seat.

On the one hand then, the influx of these ‘fallen angels’ of the bourgeois paradise; those who had momentarily been led to believe they could afford the soothing privacy of an owned vehicle. On the other hand, hikes in bus fares and the ever-increasing, ever-desperate need of segments of the growing work-intended class (epitomised in the face of undocumented migrants) to traverse the capital in search of employment. An ever-growing number of passengers, alas some without the ‘official’ permission to do so; in the eye of the transportation authorities, these are ‘illegal’ newcomers, intruders.

Losing existing jobs, seeking for new ones, distinguished between their document-bearing (whether a national ID card, or a bus fare), the bus hosts a mass of actors turning it into a rejuvenated public space of the crisis period: a hybrid arena, a space that symbolically entails all the antagonisms, the hopes and the fears, the wave of repression and hardship and the resistance seeping through it, all in a stunningly similar analogy to that of society in the Greek territory as a whole.

This new symbiosis is often rough, harsh, violent; neo-Nazi attacks in the mass transit system count for a large percentage of the already huge number of attacks that have taken place in the past two years (2011-2012) alone. Even in the undocumented reality of the everyday, the condition is far from mundane. Locals refusing to sit by migrants, handing those without tickets to the conductors appearing in their swelling numbers. Major police operations in buses. Ferocious conversations, tension, quarrels: the space of mass transit is public enough for the urbanite to mingle with others and — often-times — secluded enough for her to feel comfortable to express an opinion, however extreme, and to defend it with passion, or else.

As the financial crisis rams through the sphere of the abstract, forcing its presence into the sphere of the concrete, the everyday, it is entirely feasible to read and to illuminate the current antagonisms and contradictions traversing Greek society by looking at this vehicle of everyday-ness: by looking, that is, at the ostensibly mundane spaces of transit — right where future antagonisms breed. A close, meticulous reading of these spaces will help us understand how the transitory flux of a society in turmoil becomes a galvanised reality; how a transient mass becomes critical.




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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...