Six years ago this month Athens was the world’s darling. When the 2004 Olympic Games closed with barely a hitch, it’s likely the Greeks themselves were more surprised than anyone. They had overcome disorganization, global skepticism and procrastination so egregious Olympic boss Juan Antonio Samaranch had to intervene.
But this year, as Greek’s economy cratered, people in Greece and beyond targeted the estimated $10 billion the games cost as a factor in Greece’s woes. “In 2004 people were cheering,” says Lila Leontidou, professor of geography at Hellenic Open University here. “Actually the people lost.”
In addition to the expense, a number of the 30-odd new or renovated sports venues remain closed or underused, losing an estimated $12 million a year. At an empty Tae Kwon Do Pavilion on the Faliron Bay coast – a site the government hopes to turn into a convention center – graffiti speckled the walls, and weeds and condoms littered the concrete. Beside it a wide pedestrian esplanade over a multilane highway was empty of pedestrians. A June Wall Street Journal article on the empty venues was aptly headlined “The Ruins of Modern Greece.”
Do Olympics cities win or lose? That inevitable question arose last year in Chicago, whose unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics found only mixed support. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll in August 2009 found 47 percent wanted the games, 45 percent didn’t.
Yet as urban scholars begin to measure the legacy of Athens’ Olympics, if they look only at the costly and visible sports venues, they may miss some more mundane, pedestrian things with more lasting significance. Like pedestrians. And subways.
The Olympics showered money and imposed deadlines on long-languishing projects including new subway lines, a tram and suburban rail. A network of pedestrian-only streets in central Athens included removing autos from several busy arteries to create a broad pedestrian way linking key archaeological sites.
The plaza in front of the Monastiraki subway station in central Athens offers a rare glimpse of the city’s historical complexity. To the right is the neoclassical, 19th-century railway station. On the left is the Tsisdarakis Mosque, built in 1759 under the Ottoman empire, and now used as an annex of the Museum of Greek Folk Art. And looming over all, in the background, is the famed Acropolis. The Olympics brought money and a much-needed deadline to projecs such as the subway and upgrading of the Monastiraki plaza. All photos by Mary Newsom.
Some Athenian urbanists will tell you that that bringing everyday people into daily contact with newly visible reminders of the city’s history may have a significant, if intangible, result: Giving Athenians a shared sense of cultural memory.
The role of cultural memory is an emerging topic in urban planning; it drew almost 100 academics, planners and architects to Athens in June for a conference of the Johns Hopkins University’s International Urban Fellows Program. [Disclosure: The program paid my travel expenses to the conference.]
Conference organizer Georges Prevelakis (pictured at left), an Athenian professor of geopolitics at the Sorbonne in Paris, believes that “memory is fundamental to creating a feeling of belonging to society.” In conference discussions as well as interviews, he described its resonance for Athens, a city he and others say lacks a sense of its own history.
Athens, home to the Parthenon, cradle of democracy, lacking a sense of history? Westerners may find that idea outlandish. But a quick stroll around helps even a casual visitor understand. Of course you see the Acropolis and ancient agora. But the 2,000 years that followed the classical Athens of the fifth century B.C have left comparatively sparse physical remains. Athens was part of the empires of Rome, Byzantium and for 400 years, the Ottoman empire. Succeeding waves of occupiers destroyed their predecessors’ architecture. Even the neoclassical Athens of the 19th century fell to 20th-century land speculators. Once you’re beyond the touristy neighborhood abutting the Acropolis, downtown Athens offers mostly undistinguished, Modernist-inspired offices and apartments.
At the Johns Hopkins conference Athenian architect Christos Floros coined the term “architectural cleansing” to describe the ravages. In his view, the city has little sense of itself: “Most inhabitants of Athens do not love Athens as their city.” Prevelakis concurs, describing an Athens that where most residents are newcomers. Athens, he says, is “new city.”
To Prevelakis, the Olympics were worth the trouble, and the money. And even Lila Leontidou, who questions the cost, muses about the regenerative power of the new subway stations: “It’s funny how the metro stations become little hubs of revitalization,” she said. They’re attracting young people, bringing new life to the city.
Today, inside the gleaming new subway stations, Athenians heading for work, shopping or nightlife pass visible reminders of their city’s deep past. The stations display archaeological findings unearthed during construction: jewelry, ancient aqueducts and roadbeds, a Roman-era cemetery and more.
Inside the Monastiraki station, a clear walkway lets you stroll atop foundations of 2,000-year-old houses. You hear running water and see the second-century culvert that turned the river Eridanos into a sewer. Today, at last, a small part of the river flows free once more.Excavations for the new subway line uncovered numerous antiquities, dating from the eighth century B.C. to 19th century. Many were left on display, such as these foundations dating to the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Photo by Maggie Barrows.
Seeing that history enhances Athenians’ sense of place and culture, said Leontidou, “It makes people proud … a little bit unintentionally.”
To Dora Galani, that pride has been anything but unintentional. Chair of the Unification of Athens Archaeological Sites, she oversaw the removal of 4,000 illegal billboards, the redesign of 18 streets and numerous pedestrianization projects which she estimates cost some $127 million total.
“The memories and monuments of Athens are not well known by Athenians,” she told the conference. When her now 20-something daughter was younger, Galani said, her schoolmates knew little of the city’s history. But Athens’ Olympics-funded transformation – its subways and newly attractive pedestrian plazas – are changing that. Now, of an evening, the 20-somethings head to the Areopagos Rock just under the Acropolis and watch the sun set over their city.
Even in the dismal economy, Galani is optimistic about the organic regeneration she sees, inspired by subways and walkability and history. “We are at a turning point,” she said. “I really believe we can do things. I used not to say that.”