Post industrial regeneration in Psiri, Athens – gentrification and conflict

Georgia Giannopoulou writes about a quarter in transition

Introduction

The inner city centre of Athens is a place of conflict: a number of major regeneration initiatives have been and are still taking place under the umbrella of the ‘impending’ Olympic Games, such as the unification of the archaeological sites across Athens and a number of large scale entertainment complexes and international shopping centres. Policies to bring back residential uses into the city centre (Regulatory Plan 1985) seem to remain rather disjointed and a lack of commitment can be implied. The city centre is becoming a ghetto for immigrant residents living in poverty, featuring extremes between upmarket commercial thoroughfares and trendy nightlife quarters and abandoned or deprived residential neighbourhoods. Regeneration in Athens has been led either by the unfettered private sector or by a public sector focus on the cosmetic and physical, rather than its social context. Refurbishment, pedestrianisation and public realm schemes have only raised land values, driving out existing industries and residents and in many cases leading to gentrification and further conflict. The antithesis between the abandoned centre and the booming and ever expanding suburbs is increasingly obvious.

Setting the scene

Psiri along with its neighbours Gazi and Metaxourgeio are known today as the Athens Soho: bohemian up-and-coming night-time quarters with a cultural flavour. Psiri itself is a distinct neighbourhood in the historic core of Athens, readily recognisable by its dense urban pattern, which remains unchanged since historic times. The area is made up of a web of narrow winding streets that converge onto Heroes Square, now the meeting place of the night time economy. The neighbourhood edges are formed by a number of clearly identified boulevards and key movement corridors as well as Keramikos, an archaeological site, to the southwest corner. These physical boundaries distinguish Psiri as a village in the heart of the city.

Historical background

Psiri was once an affluent neighbourhood inhabited by Athenians, and during the Turkish rule it was a place of resistance and revolutionaries: their hub was Heroes Square. The local vernacular architecture consisted of low single-storey structures with small communal courtyards often incorporating communal kitchens and bathrooms in every perimeter block. The blocks themselves were, and still remain, small, compact and almost entirely built up. The wars that have followed since the 1821 Revolution have repeatedly destroyed the building stock and displaced the communities. The area of Psiri is a palimpsest of communities and buildings, all inscribed on the same pattern of streets and spaces. Today’s building stock reflects the remnants of many eras: from vernacular to neoclassical and modern, with several layers of immigration from the provinces and abroad over the years. Various communities have played a part in creating and sustaining the genius loci of the place, which is one of a lively working class area with a strong sense of identity and civic pride. This well-established sense of place is now changing, it is ambiguous in what it is becoming and even more questionable whether Psiri is even going to feel comfortable in its new skin. During the twentieth century, Psiri was an area of bars and tavernas where you would hear the vernacular music ‘rembetica’. Psiri never had the glamour of Plaka, as a poorer neighbourhood of Athens, but still had a sympathetic and characterful appearance. In the post war era, the need for rapid reconstruction and changes in planning laws allowing for higher densities, resulted in mediocre architecture and cheap construction in concrete and aluminium. New concentrations of manufacturing and light industrial uses (mainly leather and glass) drove residents out of the area in search of better living conditions, contributing to its subsequent and continuing decline.

Conflict of Land Use Today

The land use pattern in the area today presents fragmentation and a number of conflicts. Some manufacturing and retailing businesses still remain pepper-potted on the ground floors of mainly post-war buildings. The majority of upper floors remain unoccupied. Many ground floors in neoclassical and interwar buildings have been colonised by leisure establishments: bespoke trendy bars, cafes and tavernas creating its atmosphere at night. It is believed that many of these establishments operate illegally and others violate the laws on operating hours set by the council. This concentration of entertainment venues discourages residential use in the area and conflicts with the apparent aspirations to make this a mixed use neighbourhood. A number of buildings remain totally vacant and in many cases in a state of disrepair. These are mainly interwar neoclassical buildings where the ownership is ambivalent and the cost of restoration high. The existing uses do not coexist happily. In the daytime, the image of Psiri is as a working class neighbourhood with some low grade retail. Graffiti is spreading which suggests a lack of social cohesion and care in the place. There are a number of clearance plots used as commercial surface car parks, and the city council wishes to eliminate these spaces as they fragment the urban fabric and can become spaces for antisocial behaviour, graffiti, drug usage etc. Urban Void, a group of city activists consisting of architects and artists, have already organised two events in these spaces in an attempt to draw the public’s attention to them and reclaim them for the community. Loading and servicing for existing businesses happens off the street, which given the tightness of the urban fabric, causes conflict in the public realm, as vans perch on footpaths and constrain space for pedestrians and vehicles. At night, the area presents an entirely different image: there is a high concentration of night-time businesses on particular streets which are tastefully lit and draw attention away from the dark derelict ones. The streets and squares heave with pedestrians lingering or trying to navigate from bar to bar, having to battle with cars trying to squeeze into the narrow streets to find convenient free parking spaces. The footpaths are predominantly the realm of chairs and tables illegally spilling out from the restaurants and bars. The battle for the public domain is pertinent at this time. Psiri becomes congested with nightlife that cannot be supported by the current infrastructure in terms of parking and movement to and from the area. So where is this heading?

Regeneration or Gentrification?

There are a number of proposals and half-hearted attempts by the government to sanitise the area and give it back to the people: using policy designations to gradually remove uses that could deter potential residents, removing the homeless and drug addicts from streets; and containing the illegal occupation of the footpaths and squares by tables, chairs and parking in the evenings to facilitate movement; but rumours suggest that there are certain tolerances and verbal agreements between policing and illegally operating businesses... To ease congestion in the area, the city is currently implementing a new initiative to pedestrianise the core of the area after 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays on a trial basis; this is in conjunction with the extension of Metro operating hours to 2am at weekends, to promote public transport use instead of the car. Given that Psiri is now one of the projects under the umbrella of the Unification of the Archaeological Sites in Athens (EAXXA), the vision is said to be the preservation and improvement of the historic character of the area. However, disjointed cosmetic operations such as new paving and lighting schemes are most likely to result in an increase in land values, no doubt ostracising traditional low grade uses such as light industry and manufacturing and the low rent residents such as artists’ live work studios that have recently moved into the area. There is concern that these uses will soon be pressurised into giving way to bigger players such as new and bigger trendy bars and chains, and potentially in the future pseudo-bohemian nouveau-rich young professionals wanting to experience the hustle and bustle of living in the trendy city centre. This trend has already been observed in Metaxourgeio. There is talk in the local media by artists and architects about disjointed thinking and the concern as to who this regeneration is beneficial for. It certainly benefits tourism, night-time users, the marketability of the city as a whole, which will have a trendy popular mainstream, generic European capital city night-time quarter, but not the existing communities and a sense of place. Certainly it is unlikely that it will attract new communities to live, work and play there given the lack of infrastructure and control over the use of land and operating times, as well as poor policing and implementation of existing policies. Georgia Giannopoulou, Lecturer in Urban Design at Newcastle University