City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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Metronome - part 1 of 3

The date is January 24 and the time is somewhere in the early afternoon. As of the past few hours, not a single medium of mass transit traverses the city of Athens: workers at the city's Metro have been on strike since January 17. Today, eight days later, the Ministry of Transport has announced their civil conscription – an order, that is, for their forced return to work. In response, workers at Athens' Urban Transport Organisation (OASA) have called rolling 24-hour strikes in solidarity, while the workers at the Metro's Green Line (ISAP) and the Tram have followed suit.

Not a single transit medium in sight, then. When commencing the mass transient project, the assumption was that no element of everyday urban life shouts “routine” more than mass transit systems: along, perhaps, with the city's fabric – its buildings, its pavements and its streets – the image of buses, trams, metro carriages traversing streets and running beneath them is emblematic of urban normality; emblematic of a city's orderly function. Commuting to and from work, this ever-cyclical, ever-repetitive crawling through the urban web relies almost exclusively on the said network. The routine is the habitual, the periodic, the quotidian – yet etymologically, it derives from route: it denotes taking the usual course of action, the beaten path. Yawning faces, tired gazes, carriages and buses traversing the urban body. Small talk and daydreaming, furious fights and drunken brawls... A population might very well find itself caught in the turbulent waves of political destabilisation or a financial crisis; people's personal lives might and will most certainly be caught in a vast array of personal dramas. Even then, against and despite them, the everyday marches on. No matter how large the public deficit, regardless of how many workers are laid off, wage reductions or not – few (sometimes, very few) certainties continue apace. Day in and day out, the bus will be there, ready to take the worker back-and-forth from and to her spaces of dwelling and labour.

In its essence, commuting is the epitome of the urban: a city truly becomes so once it has exceeded the size threshold by which her workers must exercise this practice in order to reach their workplace. Longer even commuting times, those that stretch total hours of daily labour to and beyond the limits of human capacity, are exclusive to the metropolis. Commuting, then, is the metropolis' offspring. And yet ironically, it has little to do with the urban community, unlike, perhaps, what the names of the two names suggest. The commuter owes her name to the commutation ticket; to the season pass, the exchange of one payment (monetary) for another (multiple tickets). And here lies a great irony: the commuter keeps “changing often” (from the Latin commutare) in order to stay exactly the same. She keeps changing (money for tickets), that is, in order to secure her unhindered thoroughfare across a tightly predefined, swaying route.

What happens inside these commuting spaces? The bus, the trolley, the metro carriage comprise ambivalent, questionable, grey zones; an encroaching of the private space of dwelling onto spaces public and – simultaneously, at the exact same time – they materialise the aggressive imposition of the workplace onto the non-productive time of the worker, through the confiscation of their commuting time as unpaid, yet inextricable to the labour process.

Take a look at Athens from afar: nothing has changed. Day in, day out, the traffic is still there, the buildings are mostly in their place, buses carry on carrying people along. Of course, history has a fascinating quality of changing in the most exquisite of ways... By the time of a grandiose event marking our once-and-for-all passage from an era to another, the most substantial part of change will have taken place already. Throughout these crisis days, the buses, the trolleys and the metro carriages of Athens keep moving on. But who do they carry? Where to? With up to half of the active population officially or unofficially unemployed, “commuting” should perhaps be redefined, if not altogether scrapped. Fresh swarms of the unemployed come to meet the not-so-new migrant subjects, the same that had kept alive quintessential public spaces (the streets, the squares) and hybrid ones alike (the mass transit systems) at the time when neo-liberal euphoria had placed many into the sphere of the private.

And now? At the exact moment when these worlds collide, the event is called off: the largest mass transportation strike that Athens (and Greece) has seen in years. The stakes were simply too high. After the police intervention in occupied public spaces across Athens, a sense of normality and order had to be prevailed, at any expense. More so, since this was the first wave in what appears to be a series of separate public sector workers about to strike – primarily, in order to avoid being included in the so-called “single payroll”. Part of the government's agreement with the lenders' troika, this payroll is to be applied across the entire public sector, leading to extensive wage deductions. The essence of the single payroll notion lies in its universality: should one striking group be strong enough to break the deal, it would almost certainly cause its collapse.

Rather unsurprisingly, then, the authorities' response to the strike was iron-fisted. With parallels to a “Thatcherite” take being drawn already, the Ministry of Transport issued a civil conscription order for striking workers – an order that is exceptional in more than one sense. The measure carries some formidable symbolism, as the law that allows is traces back to 1974 – the very early days of the post-dictatorial Greek state. It is Law 17/1974, “Concerning the Political Address of Emergency Situations”: a law that comprises, in other words, the epitome of the State of Emergency. These “emergency situations” that the law refers to are explicitly spelled out to include “every sudden situation caused either by natural or other events, or by anomalies of nature and which result into the hindrance and the disruption of the financial and the social life of the country”.

The order is rife with symbolism: Law 17/1974 was spelled out near-simultaneously with the commencing of the post-dictatorial state apparatus; an attempt to draw the limits of the democratic regime, to define normality by its induction, by articulating what is to be deemed exceptional – and thus, unacceptable. Just short of four decades on, as the long cycle of the post-dictatorial Third Greek Democracy appears to be drawing to a close, one of the most symbolically charged decisions is ordered upon the workers that disrupt the mundane, the quotidian: despite and against an ever-encroaching backdrop of swivelling social change, the perception of routine must continue; the everyday must and will carry on...

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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...