ATHENS – Surrounded by metal fences and a phalanx of police guarding them 24 hours a day, workers have begun construction of a new underground Metro station in an anarchist haven that’s become an ideological battleground.
It’s in Exarchia Square in the Greek capital’s center, a Bohemian area of unique coffee shops, stores, graffiti-covered buildings decorated with anti-establishment cries, with station opponents fear will become a bland tourist attraction.
In a feature, the British newspaper The Guardian’s Helena Smith outlined how the battle lines were drawn although in this case the opponents said they are right and everyone else, including those who want the station, are wrong.
In a neighborhood of dense population, narrow streets and rebellious attitudes in the area as well as the walls, opponents of the work said it’s already stripped the famous square of trees and green.
“Yes, it had its problems, but it was a breathing space that was very important for those who live here,” said Nikos Papakostas, adding that a playground there was important for his two young children.
“If the metro is built it will transform the square into a concrete space of air shafts, elevators and stairs. It is a completely irrational plan that is not about city planning but politics,” Papakostas said.
It wasn’t lost on the critics and the anarchists who still dominate pockets and don’t want any police presence – the two sides regularly clash with little result – that the work began in August when most Greeks are away at their villages or islands.
The New Democracy government that vowed to clean up criminality and end the anti-establishment near-rule in Exarchia has challenged the former ruling SYRIZA which approved the work to take a stand on violent protests there.
It’s an historic area indeed, and work is also going on simultaneously to overhaul nearby Strefi Hill that’s also a stronghold for the anarchists and sympathizers whose presence overwhelms supporters who want a station.
It’s a few blocks from the National Archaeological Museum that’s a tourist magnet and a spot that the critics said is a better location, especially since that’s also close to the National Technical University that was a hotbed of resistance against the military junta from 1967-74 and helped topple it.
“A public work is being used for ideological reasons,” Papakostas told the paper, worried it will turn Exarchia into a version of the touristy if equally historic area The Plaka, close to the city center Syntagma Square station.
There are many in Exarchia who want the station there, noting they otherwise have to walk a half-mile from the Omonia Square stop, but up hilly terrain that makes it a hike of huffing and puffing for many.
Giorgos Apostolopoulos, a city councillor with the PASOK Socialists, who was born and raised there and told the paper that, “The vast majority are in favor of the metro and have been rooting for it since the 1980s.”
He said the uprooted trees will be replanted, the area beautified – Mayor Kostas Bakoyiannis from New Democracy has been on a campaign to make neighborhoods safer and more attractive – and improve the area.
“The protesters, I’m afraid, represent a minority view, even if they have a point about rents and neighborhoods becoming unaffordable when the likes of Airbnb and tourists move in,” he said.
Nikos Belavilas, a Professor of Urban Planning at the National Technical University said the Exarchia stop would be a disaster for the neighborhood and that it should be by the archaeological museum.
“The numbers speak for themselves. Hundreds of thousands of visitors would use the station every year, Exarchia’s square would remain intact and this dispute would be solved,” he said, but look for a hot summer of protests, especially when people return from the villages and islands and see what’s going on where they live.