Gentrification fuels ire in iconic Athens neighbourhood

The historic Athens district of Exarcheia has been a famed anti-establishment haven to some and a hideout for firebomb-wielding anarchists and drug dealers to others.

Now two regeneration projects are sparking controversy, protests and fears that a gentrification drive will forever alter the 19th century district's bohemian character.

Construction is underway on a new metro station on Exarcheia Square -- for years iconic as the culmination point of countless demonstrations in the volatile political culture of the Greek capital.

There is also an ongoing makeover of nearby Strefi Hill, a rare, albeit run-down spot of greenery in congested Athens with a panoramic view.

Protesters say the two projects combined will "kill off" Exarcheia's libertarian spirit.

With discontent bubbling under the surface, multi-million-euro investments at stake and demonstrations, locals now complain that Exarcheia has more police guarding its streets than outside parliament or government offices.

City and government officials are taking no chances in a neighbourhood synonymous to most Greeks with far-left unrest.

Under Strefi Hill, motorcycle police watch a group of teenagers shoot hoops at an outdoor basketball court. Others stand guard around the metro construction site.

- 'Political obsession' -

"We have more police than the prime minister's office," quips 66-year-old Thodoris Kokkinakis, a lifelong Exarcheia resident who says he sees around 200 officers in his neighbourhood at any given time of the day.

Residents accuse city officials of neglecting the heavily graffitied Strefi Hill for over two decades. The local playground is gutted, pathways are eroding, fire hydrants are faulty and there is no garbage collection.

Residents have often banded together in the past to clean up garbage, douse fires and discourage drug trading, Kokkinakis told AFP.

"We would repeatedly call the police. They claimed not to know where the hill was... or never turn up," he said.

While the metro station project has been on the drawing board for over a decade, opponents accuse the conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of weaponising the project as part of its law-and-order agenda.

"The government has a political obsession, a vendetta towards youths living or enjoying themselves in this historic district," wrote Nikos Belavilas, an architecture professor at the National Technical University of Athens, on Facebook.

After police in October beat up a protesting resident in front of his children, Greece's main opposition Syriza party said there was an "explosive mix" of "chronic neglect, unchecked real estate and police barbarity" in Exarcheia.

Yet others welcome the extension of the metro line.

- 'Nihilists' -

"The nearest stations are too far to walk," said a 75-year-old Exarcheia pensioner.

"A lot of people here want the metro" but are reluctant to speak openly, she added, declining to give her name to avoid antagonising neighbours who disagree.

Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis, whose office did not respond to an AFP request for an interview, has dismissed protesters as "a few dozen" wandering "nihilists" in comments to Skai TV last August.

He told the municipal council last month that the regeneration project was aimed at "mums with prams".

Greece is banking hard on tourism to shore up its economy ahead of a tough winter compounded by soaring energy prices.

After slashing most of its coronavirus restrictions, tourism arrivals more than doubled year-on-year in the first eight months of 2022, to over 19 million.

But residents fear Exarcheia may soon follow the fate of Koukaki, another historic Athens district that saw rents skyrocket due to short-term property rentals and holiday lets owing to its proximity to the Acropolis.

A study by the Greek realtor group Remax last month showed Exarcheia rents rising on average 18 percent since last year.

- Rent hikes -

"The shop next door had to shut down after the landlord hiked the rent from 600 to 900 euros," says Angelos, a bookstore owner a short distance from Exarcheia Square.

Critics also view with suspicion the awarding, without tender, of the Strefi works to a major Greek real estate investment company.

Athens' mayor -- a nephew of Mitsotakis -- has also drawn fire and comparisons to France's 16th and 17th century spendthrift King Louis XIV over an ambitious pedestrianisation project.

A key part of the 50-million-euro ($49 million) Great Walk project, sold as "Europe's loveliest promenade", involved sealing off a lane on one of Athens' busiest avenues with large palm trees, flower planters and benches.

The mayor has promoted the project, which began in 2020, as necessary to modernise and revitalise downtown Athens. "Fewer cars, more greenery, less noise, more pedestrians and cyclists," he told Kathimerini newspaper last month.

But a year into the four-year project, a survey found in 2021 that over 85 percent of residents and local business owners were dissatisfied with the initiative.

Much of the criticism has been levelled at the cost. According to a municipal budget sheet published at the time, some six-metre palm trees cost 3,200 euros each and the largest planters a hefty 5,000 euros.