City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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09
Dec2012

Restructuring Athenian Urban Materialities

The period of 1990s and 2000s growth came together with a project of major economic and material adjustments. This process got the alluring labels of modernisation (exychronismos [1]) and growth/development (anaptyxi). Under these political slogans what occurred was a process of neoliberal restructuring. This process intensified in the late 1990s in the name of the European Monetary Union and European Integration.

The processes of modernisation and growth had some explicit spatial-material manifestations with the most visible being the mass production of the built environment. This was the so called “golden decade of capitalist growth in the construction sector” (Tarpagos 2010) which started in 1995 reaching an apogee in the run-up to the Olympic Games of 2004. During the pre-Olympics period Athens and Attica resembled large construction sites.  The Olympic Games brought enormous symbolic value to Greece as a country and were elevated onto the level of a national project.  At the same time the Olympic project became the self-explanatory justifications for every policy including the mass material destruction of the Athens cityscape and its (re)development. All this was wrapped into the foil of ‘spectacle’, where supposedly everyone had a share. Simultaneously, the hegemonic rhetoric promoted by governmental elements and corporate media (sometimes owned by the very same people who had a crucial share in the construction sector) was glorifying the “utopia of unlimited exploitation” (Bourdieu 1998).

Greek growth and modernisation were soon accompanied by another political slogan, that of “Strong Greece”. From 1995 to 2008, the capital city of “Strong Greece” saw projects such as the metro, the new airport, the Attica Tollway, the suburban railway, the tram, the unification of the historical centre, the new Acropolis Museum, new stadiums, the Olympic Village, along with the development of other Olympic facilities. This (re)construction of spacialities extended to the entire country to include things like the Rio-Antirrio suspension bridge and other such projects of similar monumental size such as the Via Egnatia motorway that runs across the entire North of the country. Moreover, this massive national reconstruction project also crossed borders: companies based in Greece (partly or entirely) took advantage of the postsocialist collapse and started expanding to the Balkans, undertaking the (re)development of the country’s infrastructure there. This took place with a parallel process of the buying out of such things as the telecommunication companies, refineries, and bank chains that were under privatisation in the postsocialist, new neoliberal Balkan states, thus generating additional profits for Greece-based capital.

This growth in the construction sector was further facilitated in the 1990s with legal adjustments in regard to public works. The new legal framework provided for easy rearrangement and concentration of the capital in that sector (Tarpagos 2010). One such example is the changes made by the State in the 1990s to the regulations governing the auctioning of public works; changed regulations which in practice thus favoured and facilitated the concentration of activity to a few large firms and the subcontracting out to smaller businesses (Tarpagos 2010).  Whilst the production of urban spacialities is a complex phenomenon with many dimensions that extend beyond the purposes of this paper, it is nonetheless useful to notice that another important aspect of this golden period for construction capital is the implementation of privatisation models such as the so-called self-funded or co-funded (public & private) “public” works (Tarpagos 2010). This means that the construction of each infrastructure was undertaken by private firms which contributed know-how, management and administration of subcontracted smaller firms and parts of the construction works. Upon the completion of such “self-funded” projects though, it was the private firm rather than the State which was  undertaking the control of the newly built infrastructure for several decades, paying a share from the profits to the State. Besides the Athens Airport, other examples of such privatised infrastructures are the Attica Tollway and the Rio-Antirio Bridge. Since 2007 the State has also sought to privatise more and more of the national highway network, with new toll stations being planted across the country’s highway system en masse.

During the same period Greece saw further systematic efforts towards a gradual privatisation of state-owned spaces. A typical example of those efforts was the foundation of organisations like the Hellenic Tourist Real Estate SA (2000) or the Olympic Real Estate SA (2002). Legally these were both private companies functioning according to corporate culture, yet they were owned by the State. In 2011 these two companies were unified and currently they have the right to use, manage and administrate some of the most expensive real estate of the country. This includes proportions of the country's seafront, little islands, peninsulas, the old Athens airport, archaeological sites, museums, stadiums and sport facilities, marinas, ski centres, casinos etc. What is important is that the two corporations and the unified one that replaced them (Public Properties Company SA [PPC]) signify an explicit transformation of previously state-owned property into private one, which was running parallel and through the material re-development of the Athenian cityscape.

The large-scale and continuous reconfiguration of spatial materialities, along with the transformation of public spaces into what in fact is private spaces, is at the heart of Greek neoliberal urban development (Brenner & Theodore 2005). However, there are several qualitative characteristics which are evident in the case of urban infrastructures’ material redevelopment. For example, periods of construction are usually a time of restricted physical access to these spaces and a period of de-socialisation. After the re-materialisation is completed, it takes time, often years, for people to resocialize, to physically interact and become (un)familiar with the new material-spatial configurations. Usually this process takes place under circumstances of new material-social limitations since a key element of neoliberal spatial practice is the creation of controlled and disciplining spaces, e.g. through fencing off or other strategies of  ‘enclosure’ of formerly more open spaces. In central Athens, Syntagma is a typical example of such transformations. According to the Athens municipality, Syntagma was regenerated in its totality in 1896 [2], and it was next redeveloped in its totality in 1990. Between 1990 and 2004, it was completely redeveloped three times, being transformed into a construction site every few years. Syntagma was advertised as the “square-display of the capital city” and was glorified by authorities of the “Strong Greece” period, hosting supposedly the biggest Christmas tree in Europe and the city's New Year fiesta.

In the everydayness of Syntagma few people would sit or stand if they were not consuming something in the coffee shops of the square or participating in carefully orchestrated and controlled events. The square was also transformed into an increasingly regimented site of control. For example, until the late 1990s on-road pedestrian crossings were the major passages to/from the square. Since the building of the Syntagma Metro station in the square, the underground complex of the station and its passages —owned by Attica Metro SA— have become the main routes to/from the square, watched over by Closed Circuit Television, private security guards, and the police. This  “under-groundisation" went along with the opening up of Amalias Avenue and King George Street to almost uninterrupted car traffic. Other socio-spatial changes to the Syntagma area included the "pedestrianization" of  neighbouring Ermou Street and its further elevation as one of the main commercial streets of the capital city.  Around Syntagma the construction of tramlines and tram-stops, along with the continuous relocation of bus stops also took place. The square area gradually endured an even heavier policing of the parliament and the government ministries as well as security measures for bank branches and luxury hotels located there. This is more or less how Syntagma became merely a space of transit for most people; a corridor. Arguably the most usual flow was from the metro station to the shops of Ermou and Stadiou Streets.

Since the current crisis and recession, Syntagma seems like a post-apocalyptic urban desert with many once thriving stores now closed for good, and the remaining merchants feeling threatened by the strong likelihood of going out of business soon. Indeed Syntagma, was not just a lively area for shops and businesses, Syntagma was also a typical “stop” of any protest marches in the capital city, since it is the central square of the city but also the one next to the symbolic centre of political power in the country: the house of parliament, which previously housed the palace of the king. Perhaps this explains partly why so much money and mass media capital has been invested in representing and transforming Syntagma in that non-place of the neoliberal city. So, if the burning of Syntagma’s Christmas tree during the revolt of December 2008 signified a symbolic and physical victory on the ongoing struggle for Syntagma’s meanings, the consequent centralisation of Syntagma by the major anti-austerity movement of summer 2011 signified a crucial and generalised social transformation into political consciousness of the society (Dalakoglou 2011). Within this context one also can locate the political suicide-protest of the retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas on Syntagma Square in 2012 [3].

 

by Dimitris Dalakoglou

 

References

Brenner, Neil, & Nik Theodore. 2005 "Neoliberalism and the urban condition." City, 9(1): 101-107.

Dalakoglou, Dimitris 2011 “The Square as Political-Spatial Innovation” in Giovanopoulos Christos & Mitropoulos Dimitris (eds.) Democracy Under Construction. Athens: A/Synecheia (in Greek).

Tarpagos, Anestis 2010 “Constructions: From the “Golden Decade”(1995-2004) to the crisis of over-accumulation 2004-2008) and to the collapse (2008-2010)”. Theses 113, (1-2): 133-144 (in Greek)   

 

Notes

[1]    Regarding friendly academic gazes to these modernisation policies see Featherstone (2005).

[2]    “The works on for the Redevelopment of Syntagma Square started” http://news.in.gr/greece/article/?aid=510893

[3]    Dimitris Christoulas committed suicide on Syntagma Square, shooting himself and leaving a political letter behind him stating that people have to revolt and that he could not encounter a life where he will have to search in the rubbish for his food.

 

 

 

 

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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...