Andreas Paraskevopoulos, 61, takes his dog with him when he walks through the lush, green 68.4-acre Pedion tou Areos park, one of Greece’s largest, in central Athens, renovated in 2010 at the cost of 9.663 million euros ($11.25 million), now a no-go zone for many fearful to go there.
“There’s a lot of strange people here and there are many foreigners here and it’s not secure in the park,” he told The National Herald as he strolled along one of the broad paved boulevards surrounded by 1,200 trees, 50,000 flowers, 7500 topiaries and 2,500 roses – most wilted or dead because watering systems don’t work and with rows of bushes hiding places for pimps, prostitutes, persons in Greece illegally, the homeless, and drug dealers.
“Sometimes there’s police here. I saw someone trying to kill someone with a knife and we’ve had many robberies in here,” he said, one of the reasons perhaps why his pace was brisk and as neighborhood groups around the park lament how it’s gone to seed and essentially turned over to bad elements – with the support of anarchist groups.
A sad testament to a park that opened in 1934 and was designed to honor the heroes of the Greek Revolution of 1821 and there are 21 of them in marble busts standing in the park along a shaded row from the main entrance where a towering statue of King Constantine I – used as a gathering place for drug dealers – leads people into what by all appearances seems an escape from the hot, dirty grime just outside, especially the main street of Alexandras Avenue.
When the renewal work was finished, the park was handed over to a regional authority who has abandoned it, the central administration building closed as are all the others, including maintenance sheds going unused except as shelters for people with no place else to stay or sleep.
A giant central fountain worked at first but then stopped and it’s not been repaired, left dry. The park’s two information kiosks even opened after the renovation, just like the two public toilets, Kathimerini said after a tour.
The downtrodden and criminals share it with families, students, pensioners and others during the day, intermixing with people hoping to get away from the heat and noise of the city having to walk warily among walking paths, an eye out for robbers or muggers or men and women propositioning them.
It had been a kind of open air refugee camp at one point during the country’s crisis of being overwhelmed with scores of thousands of them but still people come, the lure of the trees and shrubs enticing, even if the grass is brown and the flowers dead and forgotten.
Strolling through was Anna Pangalou, a classical music singer who has lived in Los Angeles, Vienna and Rome who came back to find she couldn’t afford the anarchist hotbed of Exarchia on one side of the park because Airbnb has driven up what rentals are left, and had to settle for the cheaper neighborhood of Kypseli on the other side.
“I wouldn’t say there are bad elements, there are people who are desperate, it’s people pushed around,” by society who said, some who find the park is the only place they can go, such as an elderly woman who was pushing around a shopping cart full of old clothes and goods.
But, she said, “I wouldn’t be here after the sun goes down or even pass by,” because it’s not safe. The cost of the renovations have been wasted, she felt. “I don’t see where the cash went. With the money they spent they could have done better things and it’s not so bad as people say.”
Standing in the shade and supervising a special needs student working on a project, Penny, 25, a teacher, said she wasn’t especially anxious about being in the park in the heat of the day and stayed to busier areas where families would sit under the shade of trees and picnic, where fathers were supervising children on bicycles and some young people were sitting on benches reading.
For all its problems, the park is a veritable oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Athens, offering more beauty and respite than the more acclaimed National Gardens in the middle of the city next to Parliament and the main Syntagma Square.
But, she said, “I feel some danger during the day too and I’ve worked in some places where there is danger,” looking a bit uneasy and wary of strangers passing by. “Most of the money that was spent on the park, people took it to do wrong,” she said, the common Greek suspicion money was siphoned off.
There was a security officer standing by a vehicle near one of the main buildings, but about 50 feet away around the corner, where he couldn’t see, a man had pulled up his shorts to let water from a fountain run down the front to cool or wash himself surreptitiously.
Not far away, an abandoned metallic kind of circular gazebo, minus a cover, showed a sorry looking mostly-empty moat of stagnant water and signs indicating what kind of flowers were there – they were dead and wilted and neglected, as is much of the grounds.
Bushes had been severely cut back, partially denuding some areas to remove cover for illicit sexual activity but in others where the growth was thicker men were congregating even in the middle of the afternoon where they could partially be seen making liaisons.
There was an odd sensation in the park, a curious combination of held-down magnificence allowed to deteriorate in a place that should be a centerpiece of the city and has drawn people since it opened, but now fighting not to be forlorn and sad behind the façade of the beauty it could be.
Neighborhood groups and celebrities and even the city’s Mayor, George Kaminis, have pleaded for something to be done to clear out the park but have been ignored, and police are rarely seen.
“You can’t come at night and during the day you have to be careful,” said Paraskevopoulos. “It’s just too dangerous.”