Battle lines are drawn early in Exarchia Square – and in the depths of summer they are sharply defined. “At 6:30 a.m. we arrived,” says Chrysoula Papageorgiou, a bespectacled teacher now involved in her life’s fight to stop the construction of a metro station in the historic square. “It’s just before the arrival of the first construction workers. As for them, they are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The “them” in this case are a roving police platoon, some equipped with shields and tear gas, others in full combat gear and still others in simple blue uniforms. Papageorgiou is among the protesters who, in the sweltering temperatures, gather daily and shout at the lower end of the square.
The confrontation began last week when the heavily armed units were ordered to stand guard outside hastily erected metal barricades topped with chain-link fences that transformed the once-bustling square into an area overnight prohibited.
“They want to build a subway station and so they come at 4:30 a.m. in a month when most are on vacation to do it,” she sighs, shaking her head in disbelief. “When my son saw all the sheets, he burst into tears. Suddenly, the only square in our neighborhood, with all its magnificent trees, was gone. There was never any attempt to discuss the matter with the residents who actually live here. It was as if our perspective didn’t matter.
Few neighborhoods in the Greek capital breathe more resistance, leftist solidarity, radicalism or anarchist foment than Exarchia. Gravelly and strewn with graffiti, the area is a few meters from the avenue housing the Polytechnic of Athens, site of the uprising against the regime of the colonels of 1967-1974, an event which will lead to the death of dozens of students but which is now credited with extinction. military regime.
In a neighborhood also known for its densely packed narrow streets, protesters say the square is that rare thing: a green space that, while also synonymous with drugs and crime, offers the opportunity for young and old to mingle. “Yes, there were problems, but it was a respite which was very important for those who live here,” says Nikos Papakostas, adding that the playground in the square was a lifeline for his two young children. .
“If the metro is built, it will transform the square into a concrete space of air shafts, elevators and stairs. It is a completely irrational plan that is not about town planning but about politics,” Papakostas says.
Few public works have been the source of such resentment in the Greek capital in recent years. Writing in the nation’s leading conservative daily, Kathimerini, on Friday, a columnist compared the conflict to the Native Americans’ battle against the railroads in the 1860s. “Their culture could not survive the advance of the civilization brought by the railroad,” Takis Theodoropoulos said in an article highlighting the inflammatory rhetoric that now surrounds the issue. “And that’s what worries the natives of Exarchia the most.”
The centre-right government has made cleaning up the neighborhood, long seen by conservatives as a den of lawlessness, a priority. In an effort to restore a sense of public safety to a neighborhood whose anti-authoritarian culture has earned it a reputation as a state within a state, the administration of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis repealed a law barring police to enter university campuses. a few weeks after taking office in 2019.
For opponents, the metro line is the last stop in a gentrification scheme aimed squarely at altering the historically left-wing neighborhood. “A public work is used for ideological reasons,” Papakostas says, lamenting the prospect of Exarchia being overwhelmed with tourists once the station opens in a decade. “And they use public funds to control the area 24 hours a day. It’s crazy.”
But as a sign of the intensity of the battle, there are also many within Exarchia who disagree with this view.
For Giorgos Apostolopoulos, councilor for the center-left Pasok party, born and raised in the neighborhood, the metro is long overdue. “The vast majority are in favor of the metro and have been encouraging it since the 1980s,” he says, listing the benefits of a mode of transport that will not only reduce traffic congestion, but help the region economically.
“It’s sad that in most squares with metro stations, trees had to be uprooted, but, as in the past, they will be replanted,” adds Apostolopoulos, a self-proclaimed environmentalist who is in charge of environmental policy. of Pasok. “I fear the protesters represent a minority view, even though they are right that rents and neighborhoods become unaffordable when Airbnb and tourists move in.”
Opponents are aware that the new line was approved in 2018 by a leftist government keen to sign off on major infrastructure work that would leave its mark on the capital.
“It was then that the impact of Exarchia station with all its flaws on the square became evident,” recalls Nikos Belavilas, professor of urban planning at the National Technical University of Athens. “Subway plans have been changed in the past in this city and in this case they would have to be changed again,” says the academic, who at the time headed the state agency responsible for overseeing the regeneration of the city. ‘Athens.
“It would make a lot more sense if the station was built a few hundred meters next to the National Archaeological Museum,” he says. “The numbers speak for themselves. Hundreds of thousands of visitors would use the station every year, Exarchia Square would remain intact and this dispute would be resolved.