2017 | Apr
Cities of silence
Interwar Athens hides some surprises beyond and in addition to the violent population exchange between Greece and Turkey, beyond ‘savage urbanisation’ and especially refugee resettlement, which was then put to action – while today it is impossible to implement something similar for either refugees or native homeless populations and their ‘rescue’ from austerity . The interwar period hides some surprises of a structural nature, touching the core of the developmental effort and the mobilisation of the population for its achievement, which should lead us to reflections about failures during the current crisis. In the refugee settlements, which were initially erected by international institutions and then developed spontaneously, hope flowered even where poverty was dwelling. It nested in shantytowns, in factories, in tavernas where rebetika songs were performed. The refugees were rebuilding their lives and innovated, renewing Greek culture, economy, society.
Athens urbanized rapidly since 1834, when it was declared the capital of a small country, Greece, which was surrounded by a changing international political and economic context. European neoclassicism emerged in the cityscape and in urban architecture, along with narratives about its Hellenic roots, which aimed at the reconciliation of Greek urban inhabitants with the imposed Bavarian administration and power (Bastea 2000). Colonial overtones in the Athens ‘hippodamean’ new urban plan also contributed in the subsumption of the new national identity to European modernism, in contrast with the ottoman past, which was inscribed in the labyrinthine neighbourhoods. Urban society was oscillating between locals and newcomers, comprador bourgeoisie and the diaspora, until the first factories emerged and the working class came to the foreground. Every historical transition reforged the cultural identity of citizens, with the consecutive transitions from comprador cultures in the 19th century to the conflictual working-class city in the early 20th century, and then the refugee inflow, which causes surprise with the emergent creative alternative cultures, on which we are focusing here.
Any urban researcher would be surprised by the sudden transition in 1922 from the ‘cities of silence’ – to borrow Antonio Gramsci’s (1971: 91) concept, who wrote about them during the interwar period from his prison – to the buzzing popular suburbanisation. Until the 1910s Athens and Piraeus had their landless proletariat, as well as what is today called the precariat, hidden in back alleys, excluded in miserable central slums hidden from the ‘sensitive eyes’ of the bourgeoisie, just as Engels (1969) described for the working-class neighbourhoods of Manchester (Pooley 1992). Tenants without infrastructure, but also without any prospects for improvement of their housing space, were overcrowded in these slums of despair, in shacks and rented rooms, which created a sort of dotted social segregation in space, with miserable enclaves in the centre of the city (Λεοντίδου 1989/2013: 137-45, Leontidou 1990/2006: 67-70).
However, since 1922 the slums of despair give way to extensive slums of hope (Stokes 1962, Turner 1968, Λεοντίδου 1989/2013, Leontidou 1990/2006: 84-8). This is a paradox, since the violent relocation of refugees, instead of misery, inaugurated a period of creativity and substituted the ‘cities of silence’ with vivacious popular suburbs. The refugee inflow rendered the poverty pockets of the landless proletariat a minority in a city, which started expanding with popular self-built settlements and owner-occupation – even if in shacks and shanties (Λεοντίδου 1989/2013: 216-8).
The retrospective surprise of the substitution of despair for hope in the popular settlements after 1922, is conducive to a reflexion on the ‘cities of silence’ and spontaneous urbanization. It is wrong to believe, as usual, that popular self-built settlements and the informal economy constituted a traditional activity and were a relic of the precapitalist past. In Greece, they emerged with the onset of peripheral capitalism (Leontidou 1990/2006, 1993a), and after those miserable slums of North European capitalism had appeared in the city (Pooley 1992).
Refugee restitution and self-built settlements
The violent expulsion of the Greeks from the Asia Minor coasts started in 1922, before the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which institutionalized the population exchange after the Asia Minor disaster. Those years, 1.200.000 refugees arrived in Greece (of 5 million inhabitants) and 500.000 Turks left. The refugees constituted a heavy presence in comparison with the 60.000 people stranded today in Greece (of 11 million inhabitants). In 1920-28 the population of the Athens basin suddenly doubled from 453.042 to 802.000, and then kept increasing with the rapid internal migration, to reach 1.124.109 in 1940 (Λεοντίδου 1989/2013: 158).
The first months after their arrival, the refugees settled wherever they could find a place, occupying not only land, but also train wagons, archaeological spaces, churches, and even the stalls of the Municipal theatre of Athens (Ziller’s architectural work, unfortunately torn down by Kotzias – see photo 1). The Greek government and the international organizations acted instantly, with a determination which is unthinkable today. In haste, the Fund for Refugee Assistance (henceforth FRA) was established in November 1922 for temporary relief. The settlements built by the FRA were immediately surrounded by shacks and shanty towns. Cities were flooded by shacks everywhere, even within the ancient agora and within river beds, with the emblematic Ilissos settlement (Λεοντίδου 1989/2013: 154). These settlements were by no means comparable with today’s migrant and refugee camps in Greece and the feeling of confinement which they bring about.
Photo 1: Temporary settlement of the 1922 refugees, each family is housed in a box of the Municipal Theater of Athens
Source: Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive, published online and as cover of LiFO, n. 498, 1.12.2016
A year later, in November 1923, the Refugee Settlement Commission (henceforth RSC) assembled for the first time in Thessaloniki, under the auspices of the League of Nations in agreement with the Greek government, and the FRA was dissolved in 1925. The RSC did not deal with temporary relief, but with the restitution of the refugees in residence and productive activity in multiple ways, from rural reform and loans to small businesses, to the building of housing estates at a large scale and the development of site and services (Turner 1968, Λεοντίδου 1989/2013: 214-5) for more affluent refugees. Other institutions operated in parallel, such as the National Bank of Greece and the Ministry of Social Welfare, which undertook refugee resettlement after 1930, when the RSC was dissolved (Γκιζελή 1984).
The urban policy of the RSC in the capital of Greece started with the selection of four neighbourhoods, where those emblematic refugee communities were established, which played a pivotal role during the years of occupation, resistance and the civil war in the 1940s. In Nea Ionia, Kaisariani and Byron, at a distance of 4 km from the Athens centre, 3864, 1998 and 1764 houses were built, respectively, and 5584 houses were added in Nea Kokkinia (Nikaia) near Piraeus, where a refugee settlement pre-existed (Λεοντίδου 2002). Permanent refugee homes were also built in Pagrati and Kallithea. In other neighbourhoods different arrangements were offered, especially where housing cooperatives were active, such as sites and services in Nea Smyrni, for example (see map 1).
Map 1: Refugee settlements, housing cooperatives and garden-cities.
|Refugee settlements built by the RSC and the state are represented with the red colour. Those built in land plots granted by the state with the orange colour. The bourgeois “garden-cities” (Psychico, Filothei, Ekali) with the blue colour.
The housing cooperatives 1923-1925, by land area expropriated (from 2000 to 174.000 sq.m), are represented by proportional circles, in dark green colour
The 1940’s city plan is represented with light blue color
The map derives from the book by Lila Leontidou (Λεοντίδου 1989/2013) p.208. , based on the data mapping from different sources and archives. First published in the Papyrοs-Larousse-Britannica Encyclopaedia first edition under the entry “Athens” by L.Leontidou (Λεοντίδου 1982), vol.3, p.400
The beautiful minimalist architecture of these first RSC communities and later those of the Ministry of Social Welfare still adorns the urban landscape, although the communities gradually submit to the monotonous modernity of the multi-storey apartment building. Besides the rows of houses, which were interrupted by settlers’ initiatives, there were original elements inexistent elsewhere in the city, such as the criss-cross stairways in the oblong two-storey houses of Nikaia around the patios with the wells and the gardens, the “doll’s houses” of Kaisariani with the flower pots and the embroidered curtains, and further the later stone houses there and in Petralona. The simple forms were differentiated by the personal labour by refugees, who varied the homogeneous houses, creating polymorphic neighbourhoods. The rooms were multi-functional, due to the narrowness of space. But even this confined internal space was no problem, because everyday life was extended to patios and yards, which also served as laundries and workshops, to doorsteps and pavements for informal socializing, to empty plots which became playgrounds for the children, and to piazzas, which converted public space into common space, presaging today’s ‘commons’ of the period of the crisis (Leontidou 2015a,b, Gritzas & Kavoulakos 2015).
Photo 2: Refugee residence in Nikaia (criss-cross stairways)
Source: Photo by Spyros Delivorias, from the book by the Nikaia Municipality (Δήμος Νίκαιας 2002)
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