Infrastructures, Urban Materialities and Flows
The urban materialities and socialities are comprised out of flows and dynamic socio-cultural entities. People, information, commodities, labour, vehicles, rubbish, liquids, energy or airwaves are just some of the entitites that flow making up the urban fluidities today. Nevertheless, it is not only the mobile subjects and objects that constitute contemporary urban condition, equally important are the material infrastructures of flows. Highways, streets, pipelines, antennas, airports, ports and various other grids synthesize the materiality of urban experience.
During the post-2010crisis some of these (im)material processes seem to slow down (e.g. the construction of public works/infrastructures, the flow of commodities and litter, the number and flow of vehicles) or break down and decay materially (such as major parts of Athenian center or Elliniko old airport) at the same time some other processes are speeding up and become more intense (e.g. deportation of migrants or outflow of labour abroad, police and racist violence). These changes in materiality have very explicit socio-cultural/qualitative implications and this strand provides an ethnographic approach towards an anthropology of infrastructures (and their flows) in Athens of crisis.
In modern Greece we often deal with little or large semiological civil wars or with a semiological poly-phrenia since different institutions employ the same language for very different processes. For example ancient Greek words referring to hospitality may either refer to e.g. touristic industry’s slogans (i.e. philoxenia, xenia hotels etc.) or to refer to the most brutal and xenophobic police operation that Greece has ever seen, named by the commanders ‘Xenios Dias’ after the ancient Greek god of hospitality.
There is an urge among many members of the Greek elites to take political and financial advantage of the crisis. Part of this urge is reflected in the ongoing attempt to re-shape the urban materiality of what used to be the commercial centre of Athens up until 2010. This is the area between Syntagma and Omonoia Square, where most shops closed down after 2010. There, according to the plans, under the label of Re-think Athens, is where a new public urban space is going to be constructed. Along with creating/destroying real estate and political values, this new public space project also aims to restrict protest demonstrations along one of the most crucial parts of the usual marching route: Panepistimiou Street.
The Greek word for privatisation is idioticopoese (ιδιωτικοποίηση) which etymologically comes from the word “making” (=poese [ποίηση]) and “private” (=idiotico [ιδιωτικό]). Namely, privatisation could be translated loosely in English as idiotication.
Arguably, the so-called Greek crisis is not only linked to the deregulation of the economy, but with a wider social and political deregulation. In reference to the latter, the majority of the older political schemes collapse under the weight of their contradiction, with new powers emerging in their place. The most notorious newly emerging political party is the extreme-Right wing Golden Dawn (GD) which became a parliamentary force receiving approximately 7% of the vote (over 400,000) in the double election of May-June 2012. What is more, electoral surveys suggest that if elections were to take place today (May 2013) GD would receive over 10% of the vote. But GD is not entirely new. It has existed since the mid-1980s – yet until 2010 it was a tiny group carrying out attacks against antifascist activists and migrants alike.
Translated to Spanish here.
“Q: What will my benefit be as a citizen/ professional / visitor in Athens?
A: The functional and environmental rebirth of the centre will shed light on even the darkest and most unwanted sides of it. Panepistimiou Street and Omonoia Square will become the liveliest neighborhood, as a city centre for shopping during the day and as a nighttime “place to be”, whereas the area will become a special meeting place for Athenians from all neighborhoods. Living conditions will improve significantly and a large part of the centre will be re-inhabited, whereas the trade, entrepreneurial and tourist activity all over this area will be revitalized.”
From the website of Rethink Athens. (Original in English, Original Grammar has been retained, http://www.rethinkathens.org/eng/faq)
Athens centre  supposedly is preparing for one more big regeneration project. This time the city will have to reconstruct anew one of its most central streets, Panepistimiou, including Athens’ two most central Squares: Syntagma and Omonoia. The project will involve a semi-pedestrianization of Panepistimiou Avenue, which will be re-paved, while several new features such as water fountains or trees will replace the asphalted avenue. An international architecture competition took place during 2012 and the winner (a Dutch urban development office) was announced in early 2013. The political authorities of the country including the Prime Minister (PM) participated in the launching event. The PM was clear in his speech that ‘Rethink Athens’ is part of a larger project, which involves the privatization and regeneration of the old Athens airport along the regeneration of the Athenian seafront up-to Cape Sounio, 60km southern of Athens centre.
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.
Even though Christmas decoration was much more modest this year in Athens, still one could see on Omonoia Square an odd imitation of the natal scene, with plastic statues dressed in supposedly Biblical costumes, surrounded by Palm Trees. Until a few years ago, the mayors of Athens were proudly organising big fiestas on New Year’s eve, and were advertising the city’s Christmas tree as the tallest one in Europe.
Perhaps as one expects, Athenians’ mood was not lifted much from that decoration. The noise of the cars speeding around the giant roundabout (that Omonoia Square is) combined with a huge crowd of unemployed people in front of the job centre (ΟΑΕΔ) at the beginning of Stadiou Avenue dominate the rhythms in that part of the city during January morning. Along Stadiou, once a thriving commercial street, within the last year almost half of the shops are shut down, while the ones working are empty of clients with just a few sales personnel standing next to the piles of clothing. “People expect the big sales in a few days” a smiling sales woman in a big shop explained to me when I asked what happened to the customers “It was also Christmas and people did their shopping earlier” she added behind a tight and stressed smile. However, the deserted shop across the street said another story in just two words written on a huge yellow sign on its window: “TAKE EVERYTHING”. Another big poster under it states: “CLOSING DOWN”.
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 ) 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 street is one of the key ethnographic sites since the birth of urban anthropology. At the same time the street and the rest of the urban routes/passages (arcades, boulevards, squares etc.) have been recognized as spatial-material entities formidable of modern urbanisation. The routes of central Athens combined dialectically with the spontaneous or unspontaneous public socialities and social practices are today the entities that give material and social shape and significance to the Athenian version of crisis. In this project the materiality and ontology of urban passages are not examined only from an elevated viewpoint but down from the street level, both as spatial-material expressions of the social and financial crisis, but also as infrastructures/socio-material agents of these crises.