Metaxourgio / Keramikos and Gazi: Gentrification and multiculturalism in new residents’ discourse
Built Environment, Politics, Quartiers
2015 | Dec
This article looks into the coexistence of different social/cultural groups in Keramikos and Gazi and the way in which their relationships are recorded in and shaped by urban space (Soja 1989). It is based on data from the ethnographic research I have been conducting since 2006 (Γιαννακόπουλος 2010).
These neighbourhoods were considered degraded, after many of their residents left and foreign immigrants moved in. However, over the last ten years, middle-class strata, mainly professionals and artists, have chosen the area as their place of residence. They have renovated old houses or apartments in old buildings, or have moved into modern luxury apartment buildings developed by construction companies that had previously bought land in the area, anticipating and promoting the move of the middle-classes into the area.
Moreover, the area has become a popular location for bars, restaurants as well as for staging alternative and mainstream artistic activities. Gazi is also known as a gay village, since most gay bars in Athens have moved to the area. Gazi- the neighbourhood immediately south-west of Iera Odos – is mainly considered as a bar and club area, while Keramikos- which is the area north-east of Iera Odos- is mainly a residential location.
The arrival of new middle class residents and of youth entertainment venues is typical of a gentrification process of degraded areas in the centre of many Western and other big cities. The economic crisis has stalled the gentrification of those areas in Athens and thus they are still inhabited by immigrants and by a heterogeneous population. However, recently, investors that are present for some time in the area, such as Iasonas Tsakonas’ Oliaros company, have attempted to re-ignite the gentrification process with the support from the Ministry of Development and the Municipality of Athens.
This new movement for redevelopment, or urban regeneration as labelled by the municipality and the ministry, has rekindled old disputes between different social, cultural and political groups established or active in the area. In general, views on the redevelopment can be divided into two groups. The first group sees redevelopment as a means of upgrading an area plagued by “illicit activities”, i.e. drug dealing and use, prostitution and petty crime (thefts etc.). According to the second view, the new phase of redevelopment is an opportunity for a policing operation and eventually for the expulsion of foreign immigrants and other marginalised groups/individuals from these neighbourhoods of central Athens. Anecdotally speaking, proponents of the first group are mostly middle-class new residents, as well as many of the remaining older Greek residents, while the second group reflects the views of residents or frequent visitors to the area with a left-wing and anti-authoritarian/anarchist political background.
Below, we will highlight the first group of views, as expressed primarily by the new middle-class residents of the area, who also constitute the main vectors of gentrification. However, proponents of the second group of views, despite their opposition to “redevelopment”, are unintentionally contributing to gentrification through their presence alone, either as residents or visitors.
As seen in my interviews with young people, one of the main reasons for which they settled in the area is the appeal, the fascinating character of the centre of Athens. Typically, these “alternative” middle class people identify themselves as “children of the centre”, distinguishing themselves from middle-class suburbanites. The attraction of the centre and the self-identification of this group is based on selective, fragmented images of the area, such as the “alternative” bar scene, cultural centres or pedestrian areas reminiscent of picturesque old Athenian neighbourhoods.
The area’s picturesqueness, its “traditional” character as well as its “multiculturalism” i.e the existence of immigrants who “lend colour to the neighbourhood”, were contributing factors in the decision of those middle-class residents to live in the area. The charm and picturesqueness of multiculturalism is directly linked to the rejection by the people interviewed of the prevailing xenophobic attitudes, which separate them from the typical middle-class and from the older Greek residents of the area. In other words, theirs is a perception seeking ways of coexistence and cohabitation of different social/cultural groups and which, at first sight, seems to oppose the view of middle-class people who choose to live in gated communities in western and other metropolises.
However, the defence of multiculturalism is confronted with the contemporary reality of the centre of Athens, even though in the case of the Greek capital, it might be an exaggeration to talk about social desertification caused by the abandonment of the downtown, as per Davis (2008). In other words, the question these “alternative” middle-class residents have is how to combine the rejection of the homogeneity of the “boring” northern suburbs and the consequent defence, at least in words, of “multiculturalism” with the “risks” of coexisting with different social groups. Therefore, the question arises how one could conceptualise the coexistence of different social groups and, eventually, of diversity in combination with the gentrification of a neighbourhood?
As shown by their interventions in space, the answer middle-class pioneers of “rehabitation” of the historic centre of Athens gave to this question is the beautification of the area: green interventions, restoration of archaeological sites and listed buildings, cleaning. However, their efforts are often hampered or cancelled by the reality of the city.
These spatial interventions are usually carried out by private individuals or citizens’ associations but are sometimes assisted by the Municipality of Athens.
A typical example are the attempts to highlight the architectural value of buildings, the restoration of flower beds, the planting of trees and the ample modern lighting on Iasonos Street.
The redevelopment of Iasonos Street is connected to the operation of twenty brothels there and coincided with the demand of a major investor, Iason Tsakonas, for the removal of brothels from Keramikos. In other words, this gentrification activity by new middle-class residents is meant to integrate the neighbourhood into their own perceptions and standards for space and multiculturalism. Any proximity and coexistence with Otherness -mainly in the form of immigrants- is that of discretionary hierarchical distance, an otherness-friendly, folkloric, but clearly hierarchical differentiation.
This differentiation is reflected in space, but it is also constituted in terms of space. I cite, by way of example, the words of a civil engineer of the company that constructed the luxurious “alternative” building at Myllerou Street. Her statement shows how, an architecturally fragmented, detached, patronising photographic view of Otherness can be constituted (Σταυρίδης, 2002): “The building is inviting to the neighbourhood, that is to say, the building does not turn its back to the neighbourhood saying: Ah! we have a nice building and do not want to see you because you are more miserable than us (…) It has some transparent metal grids so you can see all those washing lines as if through fog, like through a special blurring filter”. The Other, when different and poor is accepted as aestheticised scenography.
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