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Columnists

Work in Progress: Bakoyiannis’ Quest to Reinvent Athens

Say what you want about Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyiannis’ vision to make the city more livable and transform a graffiti-covered, filth-ridden, noise-and-traffic filled hellhole in many places. At least he’s doing SOMETHING.

For generations Athens has been allowed to gradually decay and been given over to anarchists in their stronghold of Exarchia, while Omonia Square, several blocks from City Hall, was a cesspool of crime and drugs and dirt.

There was a fountain in Omonia Square in the 1950s that was a like a Technicolor movie, but over the years it disappeared and Bakoyiannis’ mother – former Mayor Dora Bakoyianni – sadly approved a project that made it a cement rest area for criminals and unlawful migrants.

You couldn’t walk in the area without stepping on a syringe or being preyed upon, and that predictably led to hotels shuttering, worsened by the country’s 2010-18 economic and austerity crisis.

Athens, for all its current buzz – especially the youth-attracting neighborhoods of Psirri and Gazi that are full of singular restaurants – and not chains, coffeeshops and gathering places, is not a charming city.

Bakoyiannis, 44, immediately tried to change that after being elected in 2019 even if all of his ideas – such as the rush job Grand Walk to create a tree-covered pedestrian way between Omonia and Syntagma Square – didn’t work.

He’s having a much better time of it than his uncle, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, however, saddled with the thankless job of running a country during COVID-19, Turkish provocations, record inflation, and a wiretapping and spyware scandal.

Bakoyiannis can, instead, look at a city and imagine what needs to be done to transmit it a better place than he found it, the first one in that office perhaps to really try to do that instead of just collecting a check.

He completed a long-delayed fountain back in Omonia and it immediately upgraded the image – to a point – even though there weren’t enough trees or flowers or places to sit – while surrounded by a rotary of cars whirling by.

And the square – which is really round – is still so overrun with criminal elements that Greek actors took to the streets to demand it stop, and that the New Democracy government meet its vow to stop violence and criminals.

Greek National Theater workers were also there, the square being near the landmark, drawing further attention to a square that for years has been a hangout for drug dealers, unlawful migrants, prostitutes, and pimps.

In a letter to Bakoyiannis and the ministers of Citizens’ Protection, Culture and Tourism, the actors said that, “nothing seems to have essentially changed,” despite promises, adding: “lawlessness and delinquent behavior is increasing by the day.”

So he has his hands full with that too, but given his record of responding and looking out his office window to see what the city could be, maybe he could try to get some more cops there, especially with hotels reopening and tourists flooding the country – and giving Omonia mixed reviews.

He has the background to do it, a graduate of Brown with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Harvard, which ironically wouldn’t entitle him to be a clerk in a Greek civil servant office.

In 2020 he told The Harvard Gazette that when he took office he thought it might be a good idea to talk to people about what they wanted, not just what he wanted and it was an eye-opening if simple statement.

“They wanted a city that was safe and secure, a city that’s clean, a city that’s well-lit, a city that they could be proud of,” he said. They wanted  “a city that would grow in self-confidence and be optimistic again.”

That’s a ways off, but they are headed in the right direction, and at the time, in a presentation on Reinventing Athens, he told Elaine Papoulias, Executive Director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, that, “people gave a lot of credence to what we call ‘back to basics’,” the report said.

He doesn’t have what every other European Union capital has – a river – that would make Athens a real world class city, however. It once had three, but they were covered over by concrete for development in a crime against the city.

In 2020 he told Anthony Flint, a Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, that “Athens has three records: the least urban green per capita in Europe, the most asphalt, and our houses have the most square meters. We want to reclaim public space and especially reclaim space from the automobile.”

He’s facing fierce resistance from anarchists in Exarchia who don’t want a Metro station there, nor renovation for Strefi Hill nearby that’s a den for drug users and criminals, and he’s pushed some projects too fast in his rush to reinvent Athens.

Attention turned to Syntagma, the major public spot outside Parliament, and work there has received some criticism, but it’s been dormant for decades and he’s trying to make the area more attractive.

Other abandoned fountains are also being revitalized because a city without water is a desert, and seems deserted. “Most of them were not in use, wrecked, with damages or very old techniques,” Evgenios Kollatos, Vice-Mayor for Urban Green and Public Lighting, told Xinhua in 2020.

Just like Athens.

 

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