Athens stinks. Piles of rubbish are mounting on street corners across the city, growing more pungent every day they’re left in the summer heat. Municipal refuse collectors are striking nationwide – just the latest protest against the Greek government’s austerity programme.
There’s clearly a crisis here – it’s just unevenly distributed. You can see it in the crumbling infrastructure; in the parks taken over by drug addicts and the homeless; in the faces of people begging for change on the metro. But beneath the surface, in unassuming pockets scattered across the city, a grassroots movement is giving Athens a new lease of life.
When the Greek debt crisis erupted in 2009, it almost brought the Eurozone down with it. The sight of riot police herding protesters became a regular backdrop on the evening news.
That spotlight has long since moved on, but life for young Greeks has only worsened. No group on the continent has had its prospects affected so severely: unemployment for under 25s is nearing 50 per cent, even after hundreds of thousands have emigrated.
The creative industries have collapsed, media outlets have closed and funding for the arts has disappeared. Yet for certain enterprising spirits, adversity amounts to opportunity. An ecosystem built on hustling and hook-ups is starting to emerge: ‘You screenprint t-shirts for my band, I’ll give you free exhibition space for your art, and we’ll both flog beers to cover the rent.’
A reliable income or a stable career may still be out of the question but those determined to make the most of the situation are quietly pushing forward, building their own DIY paradise.
“I love the spontaneity of Athens,” says graphic designer Natassa Pappa, sitting in her living space-cum-studio – decorated with elegant typography and unconventional maps – beneath the Acropolis.
“People don’t wait for permission here. There is no system to follow, especially in the creative industries. You can do things that would never be possible in other cities.”
Natassa, 30, studied for her Masters in graphic design at AKV St. Joost in the Netherlands, learning to mix architecture and urbanism. She then developed an app that lets you experience a city by getting lost in it.
So when news coverage of Greece grew increasingly dire, she felt compelled to come home and apply that philosophy to the chaos consuming Athens.
“It was 2013: the height of the crisis and the worst time to come back,” says Natassa, whose energetic demeanour complements her minimalist aesthetic.
“Everybody told me I was crazy but I really believed in what I was doing. People were spending as little time as possible in public spaces because of their bad condition. The area where I used to work was so unsafe that the urban experience had become completely degraded.”
To save Greece from going bankrupt, its government was bailed out in 2010 by the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. In return, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou agreed to slash spending, dismantle welfare systems and make thousands of government employees redundant.
Unsurprisingly, the economy plummeted even further. Thousands of families were evicted from their homes and social problems skyrocketed. One study found a 1450 per cent increase in HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users.
But Natassa wasn’t the only one determined to not give up. Historically, Greece has maintained a strong sense of identity among its demos (people). Despite widespread layoffs and protests that brought Athens to a standstill, community action groups kept springing up.
Ordinary people cleaned the streets and helped out neighbours struggling to get by. Hundreds of thousands gathered in Syntagma Square to debate responses to the crisis, ensuring the voice of ‘the demos’ would be heard by the same system that failed them.
“I was so inspired by how people responded to this pressure, shifting the emphasis from ‘me’ to ‘we’,” says Natassa. “I wanted to catalyse these disparate action groups into one umbrella campaign called Reclaim Athens that would make the city’s strongest values explicit: roots, openness, inspiration and diversity. They are all things I couldn’t feel prominently in Northern Europe.”
Natassa now devotes herself to small-scale solutions – books, archival projects, workshops, imaginative maps – that encourage experimentation and redraw the city’s possibilities. “The crisis gives you balls,” says Natassa.
“Either you stay jobless and miserable, or you dare to dream big – putting your last Euros towards opening a bar or publishing a zine. It’s like building on sand, though. You have to try so many things, with no idea of where you’ll end up, that it’s easy to feel lost. But in time, I hope this laboratory of creativity will give birth to a new identity for the next generation.”
Most Greeks will tell you that nobody is crazy enough to cycle in Athens: the heat, the hills and the erratic drivers are just too off-putting. But take an evening stroll through the Psyrri neighbourhood, a warren of winding Ottoman streets packed with small artisans’ workshops, and you’ll find an eclectic bunch of bikers sipping beers on Melanthiou Street – a once-derelict spot now alive with colour.
A brotherhood of the saddle has sprung up thanks to Gareth Jones, co-founder of bike shop Vicious Cycles. He’s a lanky, irrepressible Brit from Shropshire who’s been cycling since the age of four (a memory made permanent by the scar on his knee). After being priced out of London, Gareth moved to Athens in 2004 with vague ambitions to open a bike shop. But the dream felt unrealistic.
There were no bike lanes, bike racks or even rules of the road for cyclists. So he immersed himself in the underground music scene, helping out with gigs at squat venue Katarameno Syndromo and developing relationships with the city’s best punk and garage bands.
Every now and then, though, he’d check the government’s importation records to gauge any growing interest in bikes. Younger Greeks, it turned out, were increasingly open to cycling: partly as a way of rebelling against elders insisting that it’s dangerous, but mainly because it’s the cheapest way of getting around. By 2010, importation rates had shot up by 600 per cent – the perfect cue for Gareth to take action.
“The idea with Vicious was more than just a bike shop; it was about building a community,” he says from behind the shop’s counter, his black-and-white terrier, Fidget, sitting quietly at his feet. “I mean no one has any money – there are no fucking careers in this country – but everyone is finding a way to get something going.”
Gareth founded Vicious Cycles with Dimitri Koutsouvasillis, a street artist known as Peio, and the pair attracted crowds by holding alleycat races, street parties and gigs out front. (The shop sits in the shadow of a Greek Orthodox church, so there are no neighbours to complain about the noise.)
Vicious has since expanded to include the Handle Bar, a cycling-themed café, while also launching Spray.Bike: a high-quality, non-drip bike paint that Gareth and Peio developed.
The latter has taken off worldwide, with every can sold helping to support a small, family-run factory in the suburbs. A bike courier company has even opened next door to Vicious and, in 2015, the city got its first official bike racks.
“During a crisis, people still need to eat, drink and move – but even more important is some form of escapism,” says Gareth. “Providing one of those services really well is how you play a winning game surrounded by loss. Commercial rents are a quarter of what they were five years ago, allowing young Greeks to take over in industries they had traditionally been excluded from.”
Athens is a city of ruins in more ways than one. In the shadow of unsustainable development and poor urban planning, the abundance of empty space is attracting foreign artists just as East Berlin, London’s East End and New York’s Lower East Side once did.
Matthieu Prat moved his Diplomates design studio here from Paris in 2015 and discovered an unfinished four-story building in Panepistimio. He seized upon it to launch Kassandras: an “urban and social laboratory” championing space activism. The building itself has become a design playground, its centrepiece a massive sculpture that anyone can play with.
“We’re not here because the rent is cheap,” says Matthieu, whose wispy hands show all the wear-and-tear of a lifetime spent building things. “It’s because of the potential to produce better projects from Athens. What can we do with these empty shells everywhere? It’s about exploring how a failed architecture can generate an innovative one.”
Kassandras is essentially a think-tank for how to build democratically and sustainably with limited resources. With no major funding to play with, it relies on the input of artists, designers, architects and as many members of the community as possible.
The project initially focused on producing ‘micro-architecture’ prototypes that could be moved around the city. One recreated the ubiquitous Greek periptero or kiosk: the perfect example of a small, independent business where people come together to escape the sun, read the newspaper and discuss politics.
Since then, Kassandras has been utilised for everything from art installations and urban farming to a residency by Options Food Lab: a pop-up catering project run by refugee chefs. The aim is to bolster the fabric of the city, rather than diluting its character and sweeping unwanted elements elsewhere.
But there’s a growing awareness that if overcoming the crisis means succumbing to gentrification, then all this will have been in vain. That’s why Matthieu believes it’s crucial that Athens keeps its roots intact.
“It’s the only major European city where craft workshops are still part of daily life in the city centre,” he says. “So while it’s not necessarily cheaper to carry out a project here than anywhere else, it’s easier to produce good work because of that knowledge base. I think it’s great for people who need to make things rather than just consume. That has to be preserved to play a part in Athens’ future.”
Past the towering heaps of garbage on Leonidou street, just beyond some empty lots, a graffiti-covered metal door leads to another world. This is Latraac: a cutting-edge skate park in Kerameikos.
Tonight, Australian dancer Benjamin Hancock is spotlighted in the centre of its empty bowl. As he spins and contorts his body, Zachos Varfis and his friend Neoklis skate back and forth on the plywood around him.
A microphone picks up the vibrations from their boards and feeds them into a makeshift soundsystem, created from discarded objects by artist Dylan Martorell. The scene is exactly the type of collaboration Zachos had in mind when he created this space.
Zachos’ understated presence obscures the fact that he’s one of the best-connected people in Athens. But, working on the fringes of commercial architecture, he often struggled to find lucrative jobs – even before the crash – as the 39-year-old’s ideas tend to veer a little too close to art. So as government grants and brand sponsorships dried up, so too did Zachos’ chances of funding the ambitious bowl he wanted to build.
“You will always come up against obstacles like corrupt bureaucracy,” he says. “You just have to find a way to stop it crushing your spirit. To find the energy to complete Latraac, I had to forget that I was in post-crisis Greece.”
Zachos first discovered transition skateboarding while studying architecture in London. But, as with Gareth of Vicious Cycles, Athens’ infrastructure couldn’t accommodate that passion. “I had to go to playgrounds to find ramps,” he says. “I got sick of arguing with little kids who wanted to use them as slides and having standoffs with the parents. In Greece, skating is still seen as childish, so I wanted to develop a space that could also appeal to adults.”
The project eventually reached fruition thanks to a patchwork of international crowd-funding, a local grant and small investors – transforming a derelict lot into a skate park that’s free for the public to use.
Making that happen, Zachos says, was all about perception. Where others saw rubbish real-estate, he saw a dream location; where most people would find the sheer scale of a city too vast to grapple with, he thought in baby steps: small projects slowly making huge changes.
“The hardest thing is to be given a brief with no parameters,” says Zachos. “In Athens today, you have very tight constraints, so to generate a successful idea you need to be creative and original. It’s like evolution: in hostile environments, animals are forced to devise some ingenious survival strategies.”