Located in the extreme south of the Balkan Peninsula, the city of Athens is no paragon of city planning or governance and has seen several economic and political crises during the 20th century. Proliferating to keep up with population growth, Athens lacks proper planning and suffers from a constant lack of affordable accommodation. Like a written and rewritten document, its urban tissue reveals the trials and tribulations of history. Yet, at the same time, this sense of permanent crisis also shapes the city’s innate identity.

Chaotic view on the Acropolis, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny
Chaotic view on the Acropolis, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny

Among these historic impacts, the latest – the ongoing economic crisis – has clearly left its mark on the cityscape. Newsprint covers the shop windows of many city center businesses, lines of empty bars hint at more affluent and optimistic times, abandoned malls resemble miniature ghost towns … The crisis has clearly changed Athens, dotting the city with disused commercial premises.

Yet where there is space, there is scope: Scope for reinvention and reinvigoration. Private citizens have started to rediscover and reinvest in abandoned properties to create new living space in the city. “In times of crisis, like the one we are experiencing in Greece right now, the state weakens and neglects its basic duties. It is up to the citizens themselves to reinvent the notion of public service,” states social activist Spyros in reference to Navarinou Park, a former parking lot-turned-park that was occupied and transformed by Spyros and like-minded souls.

Nestling in the center of Exarcheia, Athens’ bohemian and student district, Navarinou Park is unlike any other. With its colorful containers at the entrance, mosaic paths, handmade fences, unusual trees, and heritage plants, the unique park attracts many visitors. “We try to organize a broad spectrum of activities such as film screenings, theater, children’s activities, debates, and gardening,” adds Spyros, “to reach a broader audience. The entire project’s success depends on its visitors: locals, students, and, more generally, residents of Athens.“

The Parking-Park, Navarinou Street, Exarcheia, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny
Photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny

Navarinou Park, also known as ‘Parking-Park’, is a free-to-use, self-managed space. Initiated in 2009, when many people occupied the space, the park launched with a guerilla gardening campaign: Activists broke the asphalt with drills and cutters, trucked in soil, and planted a wide variety of flowers and trees.

More than just a park, “Navarinou Park symbolizes the need of the population – suffocated by the overly dense urban network – for an unregulated public space.”

The aim was to open a public park accessible to the district’s population. A space that would be “open to everyone, irrespective of age, origin, education, or social and financial status.”

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny
The Parking-Park, Navarinou Street, Exarcheia, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny

“A space of expression, open to everyone,” is also Kostas Triantafillou’s description of Athens itself. “The crisis has unleashed a huge wave of creativity among urban artists.” Kostas is currently writing a thesis on the relation between urban art and the economic crisis, but also contributes to many fanzines. “Street art has always thrived in Athens, but never as much as it does now. Public services lend an involuntary hand: There is simply no money in the budget to erase the sprayed or stenciled art on display. Empty walls on abandoned buildings have become a blank slate for a new generation that writes its own history, caught up between hope and despair.”

To underscore his theory, Kostas mentions Athens’ empty advertisement billboards. Recently outlawed, the huge posters have been removed, but the now speechless billboards remain. Tall, massive structures lost in the urban landscape, drenched in rain and worn by time, they are vestiges of a bygone era.

The sudden disappearance of advertising left the city with huge blank surfaces, rendered more meaningful than before by the crisis context. Dotted across Greece, these large, useless frames came to symbolize economic austerity: The golden age of prosperity had disappeared, leaving only the blankness of vacant panels.

Kostas explains that, against this background, a group of young artists – Interzones Playground – spotted the opportunity for an open me­di­um; a com­mon space for shar­ing and broad­cast­ing. “In an attempt to come up with in­nov­at­ive sys­tems that would de­fine new ways of liv­ing, born out of a de­sire to no longer en­dure and suf­fer the present and its cur­rent events, they decided to sub­vert the billboards’ original func­tion.”

Now, the huge billboards in the city center and along highways feature different messages and illustrations “that con­sti­tute a non-lin­ear sto­ry; one you can fol­lo­w pro­gress­ive­ly through space like com­ic books; a story that tickles the read­er’s ima­gin­a­tion.”

Throughout the city, young artists attempt to shift the changes brought about by the crisis into something positive via special spaces of expression and innovative approaches to revive their damaged city. In the downtown district of Psyri, lined with formerly trendy bars and cafes, the Embros Theater became a refuge for theatrical expression in times of crisis.

In 2011, the mixed artist collective Mavilli decided to reopen an abandoned theater. The venue, which had played a decisive role in the development of Athens’ independent theater scene, had stood empty for six years and was condemned to slow decay. Supported by locals, the group revived this evocative location. “We needed a space for rehearsals and the theater was vacant, so we quickly drew the obvious conclusion,” says Angeliki, one of the artists. “It is now used as a venue for performances and rehearsals by Athens’ many homeless theater troupes.”

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny
Embros theatre, Psyri, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny

The collective behind it all started out in 2010, a few months after the first austerity measures cut a huge chunk out of the culture budget.

They saw the need for “a free cultural space in the center of the city for the community, in times when the state seems unable to support cultural activities.” The occupation, presented as the “reactivation” of an abandoned space, is a mostly communal initiative. “It is based on the appropriation of cultural tools and structures by citizens when the state fails to provide cultural policies adequate for a crisis context.”

Another member of the group interjects that “given the current circumstances, we refuse to wait for better days; we refuse to accept as final the current crisis; and we refuse to sit back. We want to actively propose new structures that could become platforms for debate.”

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny
Embros theatre, Psyri, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny

Several arrests and eviction orders have been issued since the start of the occupation. Nevertheless, the theater has remained open thanks to the collective’s vigilance and the support of renowned artists and intellectuals. It now offers a packed program of activities that introduce artists, theorists, dance and theater producers, and architects to a wider audience. All these events are free of charge: The occupation restored Embros to its original function in public space.

Over the past three decades, Athens’ ostensibly polluted, impoverished, and seedy city center has seen a slow exodus by residents who preferred the suburbs’ quality of life. Yet this renewed interest, and a general concern for public space expressed in various civic activities, heralds a revival of the center. Despite the crisis, a new, reinvented Athens rises from the ashes; one designed by the city’s artists.

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny
Mural near Omonia square, photo: Jean-Baptiste Demarigny

Header image: christophe papke/ photocase.com