2015 | Dec
“Everything here coexists within walking distance”
Vasilis Karapostolis, Handmade City
Functioning like the ‘capacitor’ of a recently shaped human heterogeneity, the Athenian appartment block, known as polykatoikia, may turn into a situated case of ‘spontaneous’ social mix between Greek and non-Greek residents. The previously vacant appartments of the buildings’ lowest floors played the role of a non-existent social housing by accommodating migrants that arrived in the city’s central neighbourhoods from the early 1990’s. The outcome of this inward movement is the coexistence between these ethnic groups and the Greek residents of the upper floors, a phenomenon that is known as vertical social differentiation (Leontidou 1990, Maloutas & Karadimitriou 2001, Maloutas & Spyrellis 2015). The ethnic diversity of Athens manifests itself through a vertical cohabitation of ‘natives’ and migrants by shaping a stratified human geography of high proximity at the building’s micro-scale.
The spatial distance and isolation of population groups (e.g. socio-economic categories, ethnic groups) is correlated with social inequalities and is therefore negatively loaded in scholarly tradition. However, such direct equations of spatial and social distance have been now challenged as spatial proximity and ethnic mixture may shadow different types of marginalisation and weak integration (Chamboredon et Lemaire 1970). Beyond actual space, Bourdieu (1985) conceptualised society as a notional space where groups and individuals occupy relational positions. This social spacing is attributed to hierarchical relations based on accumulated capital (material and symbolic) and manifests itself through symbolic distances and proximities amongst actors. Hence, if the Athenian polykatoikia and the contained social differentiation are seen as social space with vertically expressed relations, it is the social —not merely spatial— distances that have to be explored.
Activating sociological and geographical imagination, this text analyses the vertically differentiated polykatoikia as a case of high inter-ethnic proximity. Departing from the position that there are no a priori spatial units (Preteceille 2007), a different interpretation of socio-spatial divisions is proposed beyond general maps and quantitative data that present an urban world ‘seen from above’: rather the role of the building’s micro-scale is sought. Focusing on the ‘native’ side of the vertical cohabitation, the description of one Athenian polykatoikia unveils social distances that may occur in cases of spatial proximity between Greeks and non-Greek ethnic groups, stresses the complexity of the building as a spatial unit, and expands towards cultural understandings of the phenomenon.
The polykatoikia  is located in Arktinou street, Pagkrati neighbourhood, central Athens. Its vertically expressed social diversity renders the case perhaps exemplary: there appears a positive correlation between floor of residence, ethnicity, class, presence in the city and occupancy status; Maloutas & Karadimitriou (2001) have proved such relations on a broader scale. For the hereby research, the distribution of ethnicities and housing characteristics throughout the floors were firstly documented. Then, exploring the inter-ethnic coexistence from the ‘native’ side, stories from four out of five Greek households have been collected; their focus was the physical proximity of foreign nationals and the perceived community feeling within the building. Furthermore, observation has been conducted at the commonly used main entrance, seeking to contribute to the interaction pattern, the latter indicated by the Greek discussants. Research weaknesses, such as the lack of evidence concerning Philippino residents (for methodological reasons, e.g. observation difficulties due to floor of residence), ought to be recognised.
In late afternoon discussions in a foreign language are spread all over the main entrance and the appartments’ doors remain open so that residents move freely from one house to the other; ‘they speak too loudly’, a Greek resident will later comment four floors above. The four appartments of the basement and ground floor host three (multi-person) Bangladeshi and one (single-person) Greek households. The basement flats have very limited sunlight and ventilation. On top of poor lighting and ventilation, lower floor flats have visible humidity on the walls and are in close proximity to the noisy street; in July (when the research was conducted) the windows may remain open all day long due to high temperatures. On the first floor a family from the Philippines is found. According to the Greek interviewees they were the first to arrive in the block ‘even before the Albanians’, and had initially settled in the basement; years later they have spatially ascended. The inter-ethnic ‘property ladder’ is completed by recently arrived Bangladeshis, who have taken over the Philippinos’ primal positioning: in the stories, they were repeatedly referred to in a derogatory manner by Greek residents as ‘the people from the basement’, the ‘dark skinned’ and the ‘foreigners’; on the contrary, ‘natives’ were mentioned mostly by their names. A Greek and a Philippino household ‘share’ the two appartments of the second floor, while only Greeks reside on the third, fourth and fifth floors.
All ‘native’ households live in owned apprartments: ‘we, the homeowners, are a sort of community in the polykatoikia’, one stated. Occupancy seems to be a crucial element of a shared identity, excluding at the same time tenants, the latter being composed in our case exclusively by non-Greeks. Regarding the domestic space per capita, significant ethnic-based differentiations are documented: thirty-seven, fifteen and eight square meters account respectively for each Greek, Philippino and Bangladeshi resident. Nevertheless, the type and composition of households occurs pivotal to these numbers: the building’s Bangladeshis live in collective, male-dominated households, the Philippinos shape nuclear families while single-person households are strongly present amongst the Greek ones, especially on the highest floors. A notional section of the buiding (see Figure 1) visualises the ethnic distribution and summarises the research’s quantitative aspect.
Figure 1: “Anatomy” of the building at Arktinou street, residential distribution and quantitative research data.
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