The fencing of Exarchia square during the August holidays, accompanied and under the protection of dozens of MAT squads for the construction of the new, controversial metro station location, came as a result of the government’s tacit refusal to take into account any alternative solution than those proposed and considered before 2019 (and still supported by residents’ collectives and municipal factions).
Apart from the technical reasons that Attiko Metro constantly cites, part of this refusal is certainly related to the fact that in this particular station the government saw the opportunity to “finish the Exarchia”, satisfying its electoral audience.
The request for a different planning in Exarchia is not a symptom of some fetishistic exceptionalism, but has an urban planning and socio-spatial basis as well as historical depth. In terms of the latter, perhaps the most pivotal episode is the revival of Exarchia that was set in motion but ultimately shelved in 1986, marking the end of a period of about two years which was not only perhaps the most tumultuous in the district’s post-colonial history, but also the one that consolidated the socio-spatial characteristics and the symbolic elements that have accompanied it ever since.
The said redevelopment was prepared by the then Ministry of Environment, Spatial Planning and Public Works (YPECHODE) of the second term of government of PASOK in cooperation with the Municipality of Athens. It was preceded by the “Virtue” police operations that put an end to the informal moratorium between the anti-authoritarian/anarchist space and the (first) PASOK government in the fall of ’84, the clashes over Jean-Marie Le Pen’s visit to Athens (12/1984) which initiated the action of far-right “indignant citizens” alongside the police (in parallel with the practically “twin” state MEAs), the terrible episodes of the Chemistry (5/1985), the murder of 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas after the course of the Polytechnic of the same year and the subsequent riots and the normalization of preventive repression in Exarchia with the slightest (or even no) reason.
In this context and given the shift of the new government towards neoliberal restrictive policies from November 1985, the promoted reconstruction was immediately interpreted by the Exarchia area (but not only) as a continuation or consolidation of repression through urban planning means. The Ministry of Defense’s plan was little discussed in the press at the time – although public opinion was largely prepared by it for its reception, not only by the bombastic headlines about the frequent “episodes”, but also by publications on the problem of of drugs, which was also preferentially located in the square and in the abandoned neoclassical buildings of Exarchia.
But beyond that, the redevelopment – which was heralded as a project that, together with police operations, would “clean up” Exarchia by making it “a neighborhood like any other” – was supposed to answer two broader “problems” in Athens which had emerged at that time and the district symbolically condensed them as a focus of related moral panics: a spatial one (cloud, traffic, noise pollution, lack of green and free spaces) and a social one (youthful delinquency or freedom).
The spatial issue was considered primary by the study group and for this urban planning tools were qualified: control of land uses with a premium on the residence and prohibition of “disturbing” night uses, “restoration and utilization” of neoclassical and interwar buildings, location of cultural activities, creation pedestrian network and redevelopment of the square. The plan’s main goals (supposedly compatible with the 1985 Master Plan that mandated the “upgrading” of the historic center) were to attract tourists and host high-income housing.
Before the details of the plan were even publicly known, various reactions against it were manifested: from press conferences and public events with the participation of parliamentarians, municipal councilors, residents’ committees, left-wing and feminist organizations, architects, students, etc. up to arson and bombings at the offices of PASOK and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A little later, the plan was silently withdrawn and the only reminder of it is some sidewalks implemented piecemeal by the municipal authority.
Several years later, the lead researcher Spyros Tsagaratos attributed the withdrawal of the redevelopment plan to its subversion by the police themselves, who “beating, arresting […]banning any event [και] trampling on every effort [διαλόγου], [δικαίωνε] those who believed that everything that was proposed was the pretense for the state power to prevail by force” (Sp. Tsagaratos, “Poledomika tetradia”, Nefeli publications, 2001, p. 55). SELAS’s goal, according to Tsagaratos, was not to lose control over drug trafficking, which it had planned to limit to the center of the neighborhood, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the alibi given to it by the “anarchist groups” [και] of unorganized (or even aware) students and young people” for its uncontrolled action in the city center.
Of course, the 1986 redevelopment was not an innocent panacea and it would definitely have serious effects on the socio-spatial fabric of the area. However, it seems much milder than today’s destruction, which, however much it embraces the real benefits of sustainable mobility, permanently invalidates the essential public space of the neighborhood and is linked to the advancing tourism and financialization of urban land. And if the basic lesson of that old history is that the state is not a single and indivisible substance but an assembly run by forces that are sometimes contradictory, at the current moment when the government’s strategy seems much more elaborate and fragmented it needs an equally persistent, compact and diverse resistance.
The immediately following interval will show whether it is too late.
Dimitris Ioannou is a PhD architect – urban planner NTUA.