Before the crisis, you wouldn’t have seen governmental, private and public bodies working together. Now they are, and you can also see a variety of collaborations around the city. It’s been a wake-up call in how people can work together to rebuild a city slowly emerging after the economic crisis – something Eftichios Vassilakis, the Vice President of Aegean Airlines, touched upon at a recent press conference in Athens.
One of the greatest things about the city of Athens, while still in crisis recovery, is that it is a constant state of artistic and cultural rejuvenation. People are working together more than ever before, creative minds are formulating new business ideas and ventures, and the emergence of new cultural space is growing.
What better time to visit a wounded city than when its people are mending it and turning it into a thriving, adapting and fast-changing destination.
I met a few entrepreneurs on my last visit to Athens in June who had set up businesses to aid tourism growth, but on my recent visit as part of my ‘I’m An Athenian’ ambassadorship programme with DiscoverGreece.com, I got an insight into the growing trend of cultural ‘co-working’ spaces, new business initiatives and the dedication locals have to community regeneration.
Community Regeneration & Integration
I was most struck by the incredible work of Bios – a cultural organisation run by an independent group of creatives that has been running for 15 years. They started the media arts festival, taking over old industrial buildings and converting them into festival venues, before taking on a permanent venue on Pireos street. I got to visit their latest fixture, Romantso, in Omonia Square and speak to the founder about why these fixtures are so important to the city of Athens.
Vassilis Charalambidis is passionate about building initiatives with longevity: “Don’t build something just for tourists, build it around life.” While tourism remains at an all-time high for Greece and in Athens, not everyone benefits from tourism. A sense of hope needs to be ignited amongst a generation who can help rebuild, and in communities who feel as if they have been forgotten.
Romantso sits on Anaxagora Street, just a few minutes from the formerly run-down down Omonia Square, which itself is undergoing a huge cleanup. A cultural and performing arts venue, gallery viewing and new media space that was once the publishing and print house for Greece’s biggest magazine from the 30s to the 90s, it serves as a creative hub for app makers, graphics designers, fashion designers and independent Public Relations consultants, to name a few. Every eight months a new start-up gets to win free rent and use of equipment and resources in order to get their business idea off the ground. Altogether, it’s a symbol of the youth and art culture of modern Athens.
Five years ago, when the recession was rife in the city, Bios set its sights on transforming this area of Athens. The aim was to transform a wider space rather than just do things within the premises. This former commercial hub of Athens was seen as trashy and known as being dangerous; classic old places, like old grocery stores, had either shut down or modernised because people don’t love their neighbourhood. Also home to a large immigrant population, many of whom were left out of work following the construction of the 2004 Olympics, the neighbourhood was very much abandoned on all levels.
Vassilis made clear his goals to create something that was not just about the building and the people, but about the city and the neighbourhood. “When something is broken, everything breaks down around it. If people don’t feel as if they belong here, they don’t love the place.
“We are looking to change that by bringing in a more optimistic attitude. Eventually, all the area will change. Some people are hostile because of a hostile environment, not because they are hostile people.”
What was once a closed street no one dared to go is now one of the most accessible and active in the area. The immigrant population is also integrated through Romantso initiatives, running events here and seeing their restaurants promoted to workers and visitors.
Collectives Are the Future
The facts of the economic crisis that Greece had lost everything extend further than a financial report that you read in press at home. It’s after you meet people and hear their stories that you really understand the terrible struggle of the situation and the things people have to do now to get through it.
Dig deeper into how the crisis has affected the local people, and you will soon hear many stories about how people have pulled together whatever resources they had to form new businesses after losing their jobs, creating a new wave of business owners.
Yiannis Dirakis is a journalist and Nikoletta Leni, a Mechanical Engineer – except these are not their jobs anymore. Both are part of an eight-strong collective who run the ‘To Perivolaki’ café in the western Kato Petrolona neighbourhood. Originally started by a group of six women after the crisis, it’s now once of the most successful businesses in the area, providing a happy space in a somewhat gloomy environment. “It’s not what I wanted to do,” said Yiannis, “but you have to do whatever you can now.”
I spent over an hour in this café, chatting to the two co-owners and enjoying the serenity of a quiet neighbourhood, tucked away from the bustle of the centre of the city. I couldn’t imagine putting whatever money I had left and risking it on a business completely different to the job I am used to, but this is what is becoming common practice here. Right now it’s the only way and, for some, it’s a new step towards stability while creating new and beautiful initiatives and hangouts that visitors can enjoy.
Volunteering Creativity for a Positive Environment
From painted piano and rainbow themes stairs in neighbourhoods such as Pangrati and Kolonaki to the artistic transformation of run-down buildings, bus shelters and open squares in the city centre, Athens boasts a huge community of citizens who love their city and who take action to create a “vibrant hive of creativity… to share the need for a much better town.”
Atenistas is not an NGO, but instead is an organisation that brings together thousands of Athenians focused on rejuvenation, calling for donations in the form of time, equipment and resources. The primary objective is to create a positive space for the residents of Athens and try to reinvent troublesome spots.
However, treasure hunts and themed events – which run throughout the year incorporating the history and present-day highlights of the city – are open to visitors. Details of these, alongside details of artistic projects who you can visit all over the city, can be found on their website.
Resilience, Change and a Thriving Athens
A Greek friend told me, “We lost our joy, our dignity and our hopes. A whole generation has lost everything, and it will take years to recover.”
But that’s the one great thing about the Greek people and about Athens – resilience and determination. They haven’t given up, and nor should you, as a visitor, be quick to dismiss the grittiness you see on the surface. By searching harder, digging deeper and getting to know the local people of Athens, you will soon see how the city is mending, changing and offering alternative spaces, venues and hangouts for the more explorative tourists.
To stay away now means missing out on experiencing a well established European city, but one with a new, revived presence.