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.
But during the crisis Athens is not only rethought, it is remapped too. Remap Athens is an annual art exhibition, which has taken place four times since 2007. Remap Athens #4 took place in September 2013 in public and private urban spaces in the central areas of Keramikos and Metaxourgio. In its own words, Remap “is an international contemporary art platform that has become known for its participatory nature, hosting a unique mix of projects with current and up-and-coming -artists, curators, institutions and galleries- from across the world, all presented within the existing urban context accessible for free to its visitors.” (Words from the Remap Athens website)
In essence, Remap Athens is something between a real estate promotion, an art exhibition and a gentrification force. An abundance of art dealers, but also some individual –established and lesser known– artists exhibit their work in new and old properties owned almost exclusively by the two real estate companies who are the two private sponsors the exhibition. These properties are also for sale – or, to be more precise, they are the only thing that is affirmatively for sale, since not all art work exhibited had price tags.
The grafitti writes: “the passion for hipstery is stronger than glamour”
In such a context the aesthetic of the final result is often grotesque: more often than not there is not much thought put into how artworks will fit the spaces or the urban area itself. Or then again, perhaps the motivations themselves are conflicting: for example, you have some of the artworks expected to attract more visitors located in the real estate that looks like it is mostly promoted by the real estate “friends” of art. This year, such building of preference was a luxurious dwelling with debateable design. And so, a vast art piece stood in the middle of what is obviously a small and low ceiling open-plan kitchen-living room, with the WC’s open door in the background. Fortunately, a sign would warn the visitor that the toilet was out of order. Two students working there for free (“volunteering” they said) were taking care of the art (or was it the house?) The luxurious house (or was it the art?) was also fully guarded by an unfriendly security guard who would stand in a summer suit and sunglasses in front of the gate, staring at visitors with hostility. No smiles returned, and definitely no questions answered.
Two streets away, the social role of ‘Remap Athens’ would become that much more evident. In front of a huge, beautiful un-renovated neoclassic house, hosting the commerce of a gallery, a bunch of well-dressed people spoke in English: they have just met, kissing, laughing and shouting loudly as they enter the exhibition happily. Quite literally five metres away, directly across the street, two men (invisible, it seems, to the happy company) had squatted on the pavement, searching for a vein in their arms to shot. On the block diagonally across the neoclassical temporary art gallery lies a dusty closed-down hotel; on the same block there is a line of prostitution houses with the red or white lights above their door turned on. A young art student who volunteers for the exhibition tells me, sitting on a wooden bench on the hall of the neoclassical building, “we are all trying to help for the upgrade and cleaning of the area”. This is tricky, from the chat it is gathered that she does not supports Golden Dawn, however one year earlier “Cleaning the filth” was the central pre-electoral slogan of the Greek neo-Nazi party. The questions come immediately in the mind: who or what is the filth that needs to be cleaned according to her view? And how they are planning to do that? It was useless to ask the questions, she is staring at her i-phone. The city belongs to art now, there is no space for the socially marginal or political thinking of any kind. Thought was already hi-jacked by ‘Rethink Athens’ the other gentrification project of Athens;’ centre. The previous day, someone asked on the street two arty looking guys where is “Remap Athens” – “Remap is everywhere!” shouted one of them. But the process of remapping Athens –everywhere- seems to have its victims.
The self-description of Remap quotes lots of nice phrases such as “participatory nature” (?), “accessible for free to visitors” and “within the existing urban context”. Let’s focus on the latter: Keramikos and Metaxourgio are central areas of Athens which are very mixed in terms of their uses, their residents and their activities: they are considered by mainstream discourse as disadvantaged parts of the city. Migrants’ shops, the Athenian China Town, drug dealing and use, sex work, residents who were born there, artists who brought their studios in the area during the last few years, archaeological sites, posh bars, plenty of abandoned warehouses, shops and houses (some of them collapsing), inexpensive (but also some new expensive) hotels and some unbuilt spaces co-exist in the socio-spatial Mosaic of Keramikos and Metaxourgio.
For the best part of the 20th century, that area would house active warehouses and other kind of technical and small-scale industrial activity. In the 1980s such activities were forced out of the city centre. This state intervention led many of the area’s residents to gradually move away. The entire process left spaces empty and a huge plexus of small businesses, social relationships and communities devastated and displaced. In the 1990s, when the first mass waves of migrants from the Balkans entered Greece, Keramikos and Metaxourgio had plenty of cheap accommodation and unused properties – and so a lot of migrants moved in. It was here that some of the first migrants’ businesses in Athens opened in the 1990s: coffee-shops and shisha cafes or call centres. The area had prostitution houses for many decades, but these expanded in the 1990s, as the older hotels started closing down and various other buildings started becoming abandoned. The value of real estate plummeted and most owners could not afford or bother to fix buildings which would never yield any significant returns. The abandoned buildings started being squatted by the urban poor, sometimes migrants without documents, refugees from the global warfronts, who ended up in Athens via the thriving trafficking networks that were and continue to be fed by the Fortress Europe policies. Drug users and homeless people as well became the new users of the abandoned properties. The so-called Athenian China Town started operating there in the 2000s with several shops selling mainly clothing. However on some evenings one can buy foodstuff by street vendors who will sell their stuff on the street.
Regular police operations, targeted the area en masse since the very early 1990s created an atmosphere of war against migrants but also drug use has been periodically targeted by police operations in the area. Allegedly In periods that drug use is not attacked in the area, police officers who detain or stop and search heroine and crystal meth users, have told them to get away from Omonoia or other areas and go to Metaxourgio. The streets of Metaxourgio and Keramikos saw plenty of police brutality the last two decades while this was often televised, creating the worst image for the area and the activities possible there. This peculiar kind of informal collaboration between police and mass media dropped prices in the area even further in a period that real estate prices in other parts of the city would rise enormously.
Between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s Athens saw some enormous growth (materially, geographically and economically) with the Olympics being an emblematic moment of the new “wealthy and powerful” Greece. However as explained, that period was not rosy for everyone: it had those excluded from the prosperity and the benefits of growth. Keramikos and Metaxourgio hosted some of those people. But at the time of growth, it was not only the poor that were looking to these areas for shelter: it was also two of the major private sponsors of Remap looking for potential profit. Oliaros and K&M Properties, both real estate companies, became interested in the cheap properties of the area and bought in bulk. This may have been an investment mistake – perhaps they did not expect the crisis to hit so soon, or perhaps there is a different gentrification plan there.
The crisis may have hit the real estate companies of Athens and the commercial centre of the city from 2010-11 on – but there are people who have been experiencing smaller-scale, but equally devastating crises for more than two decades. The ones who were never benefited during and from the period of high profits, the ones who never joined the new middle class party. The majority of the spaces that host Remap Athens for twenty days every two years were hosting, up until only a few years prior, plenty of the urban poor, temporarily or more permanently, with rent or without: people who would live in these buildings all year long. Today, for all but the brief Remap period, the vast majority of these properties remain locked and unused.
Text and photography by Dimitris Dalakoglou