ATHENS – One night after the long-awaited New Omonia Square in Athens Centre – complete with a magnificent fountain – was turned over to the citizens, dozens of Athenians were drawn to the water and light spectacle that now graces the heart of their city.
The space that was closed off by an ungainly aluminum wall for 18 months after being an eyesore for many years was presented to the people by the city’s new mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, just after dusk on May 14.
While the people of Athens have faced the coronavirus restrictions with remarkable patience, it is easy to read on their faces that their spirits could use some lifting. A little jolt of joy was administered Thursday evening, May 14, when the lights were turned on and the water began to soar.
The gathering was not billed as a ‘grand opening’ but once it was announced that the Square would finally be open to the public, numerous citizens made their way to the once-proud heart of the Greek capital that had undergone decay that included a rise in crime and a decline in commercial appeal over the past 20 years.
Even before Bakoyannis – who took office September 1 of last year – accelerated and upgraded the planned renovation of the Square initiated by his predecessor Giorgos Kaminis – the future of the surrounding blighted neighborhood began to brighten with imminent openings of up to ten high end hotels.
Kaminis’ plan featured a modest fountain at the edge of the site, but when several private foundations and companies proposed donating a much more impressive fountain, the new mayor happily accepted the offer – already obviously to the delight of Athens, tourists, and Greek-Americans who missed the fountain that graced the square until its removal in the 1990s.
Bakoyannis and a handful of dignitaries gathered around a newly-installed plaque that described the history of the Square – first built in 186 as Palace Square and renamed Omonia Square in 1862. The plaque noted that the restoration was also made possible through donations by the A.C. Laskaridis Charitable Foundation, Fontana Fountains, Ellaktor construction group, and the Onassis Foundation.
The excitement over return of the citizens to Omonia drew press and citizens and made for an unplanned event that raised eyebrows in the coronavirus era. The following day Bakoyannis acknowledged that “we made a mistake. It was a big mistake not to foresee that when we opened Omonia many people would come,” impressing people his immediate candor. It was noted that authorities made sure police were there on Thursday night who repeatedly urged people to do proper social distancing.
Among those present was Antonis Papadimitriou, president of the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation which was been pushing for an Athens Centre renaissance for a long time. On Thursday night he was thanked for providing the funds for the restoration the water sculpture of Giorgos Zongolopoulos at the East edge of Omonia.
After one day it was apparent that officials may have to revisit the decision not to include any benches in the original plan. People were seen sitting uncomfortably sitting on the parapet around the fountain and on the metal security posts that surround the square. Some observers noted “a few trees would be nice too.”
The opening of the Square and its new iconic fountain was accompanied this week by the municipality of Athens also announcing the approval on Monday of a proposal for the expansion of the pedestrian street network and a substantial reduction of the number of cars in Athens Centre.