City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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I. Linguistic (and other) suggestions


In the opening chapter of his book Violence: Six sideways Reflections, Slavoj Žižek adduces the following story: “there is”, he writes, “an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves...” [1]. Here, Žižek utilises the paradox of this story to reveal the hidden mechanisms of meaning-giving activated for the needs of the conceptualisations of violence. Part of a near-reflex associative process, the worker’s daily exiting of the factory with a wheelbarrow-form insinuates and logically presupposes the existence of an object-content. As part of his sideways reflections on violence, Žižek matches this automatism of thought to the “visible expressions of violence” that occupy the centre-stage of our minds and which, in the vortex of dominant symbolisms, take on their only too familiar moral and value form. The empty wheelbarrow ––let alone its repetition–– obviously comprises an act that is void of meaning, should one interpret it in a more or less self-evident context. Yet what the worker does comprises a deviation from the framework set by the automatism in question. The worker chooses to steal the wheelbarrow itself, showing that what had in its initial interpretation comprised form-for-some-content for him comprises, paradoxically, the content itself. The peculiar rupture in this meaning continuum helps Žižek claim that we must learn to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible 'subjective' violence” and to try to understand the contours of the background which generates such outbursts [2]. This attempt will inadvertently lead us, according to Žižek, to the revealing of a more foundational form of violence ––one that he terms “symbolic”–– which is embodied in language and its formsand that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning” [3].


To download a pdf of the timeline data, click on link below.


An interview with Professor Stavros Stavrides at the Athens School of Architecture in February 2013.


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.


The 11414 phone-line is a widely publicised initiative established by the Greek Ministry of Public Order and Citizen Protection in response to international and domestic criticism of police handling of racist violence, an example of which is a damning report by the Racist Violence Recording Network[1] (henceforth RVRN). Their criticisms included that the police are often more likely to turn people away, beat or arrest them under the pretext of lack of immigration documents than they are of investigating the attacks. Bearing in mind these conditions and the ongoing stream of horror stories that emerge in the Greek media of migrants being attacked and tortured[2], a few things become apparent: that understanding and communicating the actual extent of the issue of racist violence in Greece is very important; that doing this is also very tricky; and that to do it in a manner that will have any effect on the situation is extremely difficult. This is, therefore, a tentative text, written as an introduction to an attempt that might very well fail: to map, on a rolling basis, the attacks on migrants taking place in Athens. The aim is for this mapping to raise awareness of the situation internationally and to act as a tool for counter-action locally. There have been attempts and failures to do similar things before, yet each failure has nevertheless revealed new important details about the rise of fascist violence in Greece, drawing connections to the extent of far right wing support amongst the police, local employment relations, legacies from the Greek dictatorship, national and European immigration policies, austerity and international conflict, particularly with the wars in Syria as well as most of North Africa and Afghanistan. In other words, this issue is not merely a national one but has ties and relevance far beyond the Greek borders.


Tick.  “I never thought it would come to this. But I probably have to go, I have to get out of this place. And soon, you know it, so will you”.

Tock.  The middle-aged man has one of the most shy but frenzied gazes that I have seen in a long while. The combination is a peculiar one, and it gets me thinking. In the metro, in the bus or in the tram, our utmost struggle is to rest our gaze somewhere; better even, to allow it a private thoroughfare, a trajectory to reach beyond the point where we stand. In a space of intense togetherness, every single other sense of ours is exposed naked: we may overhear conversations, we may smell and we may touch our fellow passengers. Taste aside, the only sense acting as line of defence against this cramped and forced conviviality is sight.


Yet apart from the self-evident importance of the aforementioned uses of martial metaphors for the legitimisation of more totalitarian policies of public order, it is worth dwelling for a while on another two points that appear to hold centre place in the production of this discourse –– and which cooperate exceptionally with one another. First, even the most cursory of readings of relevant articles makes clear that the discourse produced today in relation to the migration phenomenon is ever-increasingly interwoven with discussions over criminality –– and therefore, with issues of public security. The cries by Dendias for undertaking immediate action in regard to the management of what he calls “illegal migration”, and the doom-like tone with which he talks about the presence of migrants in the country’s interior are typical examples of such a connection between migration and national security. This relationship, however, does not comprise a Greek novelty. Stephen Graham argues that “in all western nations, it is the postcolonial diasporas, and their neighbourhoods, that are the main targets of the new, internal and often highly racialised security politics” [1]. Graham concerns himself, at this point, primarily with the ways in which the contemporary neo-conservative discourse connects the migration phenomenon with global terrorism networks; and he stresses that “such is the conflation of terrorism and migration these days amongst the right that simple acts of migration are now often being deemed acts of warfare within contemporary military doctrine” [2]. The difference that one could spot in the Greek example derives from the content of the connections themselves. Because the conservative and far-right rhetoric in Greece, even if making a wide use of the same orientalist tools, does not see (at least, not quite yet) terrorist networks behind the migrant communities –– but instead, some more archetypal “natural dangers” and the more blatant “cultural threats” against the orderly function of the national body; elements that this rhetoric claims to be able to certify through the ambiguous conclusions of the criminological discourse. Even so, the matter of national security is still brought up. The “invasion” that the minister invokes translates into an act (and therefore, a declaration) of war.


The use of such a hygienic discourse by the state officials in question is far from coincidental. Utilising the legacy of at times popular theories of degeneration [1] and relying upon the promotion of a stricter dogma of security –– in face of the risk of social deregulation caused by the economic crisis [2] –– they attempt to rejuvenate the mechanisms of national meaning-assignment on the basis of an abstract public security threat while they utilise, at the same time, the concrete characteristics and dynamics of familiar, stereotypical approaches. The historical importance of the hygienic discourse is, after all, unquestionable: both for the purpose of self-cognition and representation of the “inseparable and healthy” national body and for the legitimisation of policies of control and technologies of security [3]. It is in this cognitive environment that one ought to seek some basic interpretations of the explosion of the racist phenomenon, which has been observed on a national level, primarily during 2012. The hygienic metaphors and the introduction of nosology in the sphere of the production of politics comprise the penultimate field for the legalisation of violence, as Susan Sontag explains in the context of the military metaphors of cancer [4] –– regardless of whether the axis for the articulation of such violence is developed vertically (see: the state) or horizontally (see: the society). They have the unique capacity to act parallel, at two different levels: first at the physical-material level, which is where the illness appears and inhabits, where one can observe its materialities and its transmissibilities, and where the material results of the historically tried and tested techniques of exclusion and control are inscribed. Second, and at the same time, at a symbolic-political level –– at the heart of which one can rightfully introduce its weighty “truth”; utilising the unquestionable evidence that the clinical perception of the illness carries with it and assigning essentialist content to the forms of politics, therefore articulating them through the well-known catastrophic syntax of emergency.


On 2nd February 2013 Cheick Ndiaye's body was found on the rail tracks of Thissio metro station in central Athens. A friend, who was a witness states he saw Cheick being pushed to his death by two municipality police officers who were chasing him. Cheick was a migrant from Senegal.




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.


état de siege [1]: public space user manual (1 of 3)

We shall reoccupy our cities and our neighbourhoods. We shall treat humanely all those who are in need. But Law shall return to the cities. And the feeling of security shall be reinstated among their residents. We shall, lastly, satisfy the common conception of Justice” [2]. On April 7th, 2012 the current prime minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, used this ambivalent if explicitly martial declaration in order to demonstrate one of the main axes of his political agenda during the closing act of his most recent pre-electoral campaign.


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 [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.


A photographic essay by Ross Domoney, November 2012



What could a research project titled “The City at a Time of Crisis: Transformations of Public Spaces in Athens” possibly mean today? And why should it specifically ponder over public space? Today, Greece is going through a period of extreme transformations. These transformations are marked by the material and symbolic results of what one could roughly call the debt crisis. Their effects on a social level are more than catastrophic. The dissolution of the public health system, extreme cuts in wages and pensions, drastic increase in taxation, dismantling of the public education system, sky-rocketing of the unemployment indexes, a rapid decrease of the average consumer power, create a condition that violently dismantles all that was socially a given to date. It is by now evident that social balances are rapidly transformed and that along with them change the ways in which people had learned to communicate to date. Obviously, these changes do not leave the city untouched – both in terms of its shape and its function. And public space is at the heart of these changes. On its own, urbanity comprises a particular way of communication. It is a unique way in which to articulate and to record meanings. A way that drastically changes at the present moment.

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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...