Athens isn’t what you would call a beautiful city or even a picturesque one. A friend described it as a place where someone threw a bag of Legos and wherever they landed that’s how Athens was built and developed after the second world war. This huge uncontrollable expanse of cement, metal and marble is a basin engulfed by 4 mountain ranges. Parnitha, Penteli,Hemetos and Egaleo. Except for the Parthenon, Mount Lycabettous, and the Panathenaic Stadium (Kallimarmaron) there aren’t distinct recognizable features in its landscape that define it like other sprawling metropoles.
Athens is an ugly modern city. built around on the glory of ancient wonder.
What Athens has that other cities in the world don’t is its ability to constantly renew itself and reinvent its story. This does not stem of capricious artistry but because of necessity. Ever since the second world war, Athens has been a city of change, tumult and pathos. It’s an experimental, dramatic place filled with history and constant change.
Fluctuating Governments, Regimes, Geo-Political importance, invasions, occupations, war and turmoil. Its streets are paved over layers upon layers of history. Every building quite literally stands over ancient cities and past glory. At every turn there is an ancient site tucked between the cacophony of 1950’s chaotic rebuilding post WWII.
Despite its misfortunes, Athens is a grand, triumphant city taking its name after its most powerful female symbol. The city is dedicated to the goddess Athena, she rains over this basin as a goddess spawned from fierce strength and magnificence. The Virgin Goddess (Athena Parthenos) protects our city, and you can feel her presence looming over the polis every night as the Parthenon lights up over the night sky.
Like every one of its citizens, its loud, nosy, loving, boisterous , nostalgic, hospitable, suspicious, dirty, and mystical. You will come to this city a stranger and you leave a friend. Its not an easy friendship mind you; it will demand a lot of you, but its a deep and genuine lasting friendship that will be there for your through the hardest of times. She is a city that has been battered, used, taken advantage of again and again but still has life to give and love to share for those who are willing to look beyond the scars and the misfortunes.
In 2010 the economic crisis started to bear down on the soul of this beautiful city goddess. This was one wound too many for some neighborhoods. I saw once vibrant street corners turn into drug infested sewers, I saw its people live in fear of their neighbors and let the mistrust and anger brewing around them seep into their daily lives. I saw people who not since the second world war experience poverty and homelessness that was not caused by famine or destruction but of loss of dignity and finances due to overwhelming dept. Yet despite the destruction, the riots, and the strikes that has crippled our city for the past eight harrowing years, it’s people and most importantly it’s young people are starting to find ways to bring sunlight into even the darkest spots.
New businesses are being created, replacing once empty neighborhoods with bars restaurants and cafes. New companies are being founded with innovation from forward thinking Greeks, who left, the country for years at a time, and came back, with renewed courage to give back to the city they love.
These changes are not with out their set backs. The crisis still looms heavy on every day living, but instead of giving in to the roller coaster crippling economy that has been Greece’s reality, Greek entrepreneurs and business owners have learned to adapt with the times. Etsy and online stores are now replacing physical storefronts which are expensive to maintain and don’t draw the foot traffic they once did. Yes we all are very weary when stores that have been in the center of Athens since the late 1800’s no longer can sustain themselves, but innovation has to take place in order for new blood to enter an ill fated economy.
Online business is on the rise, as crippling capital controls are still in place, but have allowed for more online commerce to develop. Greeks and specifically Athenians have long been trained to use loopholes, and this is no exception. Old abandoned houses are being transformed and given new life as hip cocktail bars and gourmet restaurants. Greeks although strapped for cash themselves have found a way to work outside the localized economic restrictions and build businesses that are not only successful but profitable as well.
Just underneath Philopapou Hill in Petralona what was once a working class neighborhood in the 1950’s has now become a gathering place for new restaurants, and bars. Old taverns that were only frequented by the locals are now a destination spot for people who don’t live near these neighborhoods. I witnessed the beginning stages of this transformation starting in 2010 when I still lived in Athens. Beautiful neoclassical buildings are transformed, and transported to a time and place that has no historical reference and recreates these streets from the beginning.
The northern suburbs of Athens are also getting their taste of new glory days; with local restaurants and bars choosing to set up shop in smaller venues there rather than take their business in more prevalent or central neighborhoods in Athens. Off the tourist beaten path, these neighborhoods are usually strangers to foreign visitors so they keep their authenticity and are loyal to their patrons are they are to them.
Chalandri, Cholargos, Kifissia, Marousi, Agia Paraskevi to name a few are the northern neighborhoods receiving a fresh spotlight after their initial heyday in the 80’s and 90’s.
Even more “working class” and immigrant neighborhoods such as Ilion, Nea Smyrni, and Egaleo are reinventing themselves in their own unique way.
The under represented and often overlooked jewel of Athens in my opinion has always been Piraeus. Its a busy, dirty, port with overly antithetical ideas about itself. In the 30’s and 40’s part of it was a very upper class neighborhood, next to a sprawling lower class and immigrant population constantly coming in from Asia Minor and the northern outskirts of the Greek villages. Many families who had shipping or trade businesses would live and work there. One of them being my grandmother and her 3 siblings. The northern suburbs now considered upper class, were all but non existent, and only for “summer vacations” of the wealthy Athenians, seeking refuse from the overcrowding Athenian metropolis.
Philopapou Hill in the early 1800’s and 1900’s
Pireaus on the other hand was and is for many a separate entity of Athens set apart for its glory and Academic centers, Pireaus was a city of the people and by the people. Its like no other part of Athens. The residents call themselves Pireotes before they would ever call themselves Athenians. And I can completely understand their pride and camaraderie to their neighborhood.
This is true for other neighborhoods in Athens, as they are slowly revamping, reinventing, renewing their re-imagined surroundings. Neighborhood by neighborhood Athens has become and continues to become a city of creativity and change. I hope that people who visit it can take a moment to appreciate its beauty despite its seeming chaotic make up.
Athens is always and forever struggling with the city that it once was, and now slowly growing into the city that it will be. Its Renaissance comes with many growing pains and crises of identity yet I’ve always had faith in this crazy lego-land built on the ruins of ancient civilization. This faith is born not because Athens is the home I was born in, but has become the home that I’ve grown as a person, as a woman, as a friend as a professional, with countless others who worked hard and made it their home too. We are not really Europe, we are a plethora of identities and images and histories that blend to make us who we are, and I hope that one day we realize that and define this city with its own colors.
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