GR US

A Tale of Two Cities

Αssociated Press

Traffic jams a main road in central Athens, as at the background stands the ancient temple of Zeus, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, one day before the new national lockdown starts. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Many Greek-Americans live a life in two cities – and at least one village or island. We have our permanent residence in America and if not a home in Athens, a place where we can stay for a few days when we fly in. 

Once upon a time almost all Greek-Americans used the Greek capital only as a transportation hub – one night with relatives or a hotel, then off to the airport or Piraeus for their ‘real’ vacation. 

That has been changing. Athens has become a much more livable and enjoyable city thanks to the Metro and places like the remarkable Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. 

The city’s nightlife, always lively, has caught fire in places like the Gazi district and the burst of restaurants and lounges in areas like Psiri. In a few years, two huge new parks will grace the coast south of Athens, at Faliron Bay and the Hellenikon development. 

But it can be better. Athens is on the verge of becoming one of the world’s great cities, not just a museum town showcasing the glories of the Hellenic past. Brilliant young entrepreneurs are getting the world’s attention with their startups, and the once gritty parts or Athens and Piraeus are drawing many of the world’s young artists – (sidenote: with so many stores closing permanently, can some of that space be offered to artists and musicians?) 

Experience in the United States teaches us that a city reaches its full potential when there is a real and vigorous dialogue between public officials and citizens. Among the missing elements seem to be well-organized Town Hall meetings to present the governments’ visions directly to the people and to help resolve contentious issues – yes, there will be rowdy people. We are passionate Greeks.

Athens’ Mayor Kostas Bakoyiannis has made progress, eliminating much of the blight of graffiti and nicely wrapping up the beautiful new fountain at Omonia Square – through a most-welcome public-private partnership. The city is also extending the earlier successful pedestrianization and other improvements. 

Regarding the graffiti – there is some genuine street art there too, and space can be made available for that, for example, in Exarchia. But even in that wild and often out of control part of town, officials can do a better job of communicating and striking a balance between effective policing and the Bohemian spirit that prevails – most great cities have a bohemian section – and Exarchia is Athens’. 

Is it certain that the new Exarchia Metro station can only go in Platia Exarchia, provoking even more violent clashes between police and youth? There should be an Option B – of course, the platia might have archaeological issues…

And can the re-development of Exarchia also adopt part of the agenda of the activists that other Athenians would agree with, converting some of the abandoned buildings to homes for refugees and the homeless?

But there are more basic things the government can do that will make a big difference – can they offer tax breaks or funds to citizens to give their buildings a cleaning and a paint job? Can we fix the slippery and disappearing sidewalks that are a danger to people of all ages?

Greek-American leaders who meet with Greek officials can share insights and experiences about such things. Athens itself is two towns – the current one is very nice, but the future city can be truly amazing.