The battle lines are drawn early in Exarchia Square – and in the depths of summer, they are rigorously defined. “By 6.30am we’re here,” says Chrysoula Papageorgiou, a bespectacled schoolteacher now involved in the fight of her life to stop a metro station being built in the historic plaza. “That’s just before the first construction workers arrive. As for them, they’re here 24/7.”
The “them” in this case is a shifting platoon of police, some equipped with shields and teargas, others in full battle dress and yet others in uniforms of simple blue. Papageorgiou is among the protesters who in energy-sapping temperatures have been meeting daily and chanting themselves hoarse at the lower end of the square.
The face-off started last week when the heavily armed units were ordered to stand guard outside hastily erected metal barricades topped with chainlink fencing that overnight turned the once-vibrant square into a no-go zone.
“They want to build a metro station and so they come at 4.30 in the morning in a month when most are on holiday to do it,” she sighs, shaking her head in disbelief. “When my son saw all the metal sheets he burst into tears. In one fell swoop our neighborhood’s only square, with all its wonderful trees, had gone. There was no attempt ever to discuss the issue with residents who actually live here. It was as if our view didn’t count.”
Few areas in the Greek capital are more redolent of resistance, leftwing solidarity, radicalism or anarchist foment than Exarchia. Gritty and graffiti-strewn, the district lies meters away from the avenue housing Athens Polytechnic, the site of the uprising against the 1967-74 Colonels’ regime, an event that would lead to the deaths of dozens of students but is now credited with extinguishing military rule.
In a neighborhood also known for its densely populated narrow streets, protesters say the square is that rare thing: a green space that, if also synonymous with drugs and criminality, offers the opportunity for young and old to mix. “Yes, it had its problems, but it was a breathing space that was very important for those who live here,” says Nikos Papakostas, adding that the plaza’s playground 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 city planning but politics,” Papakostas says.
Few public works have been the source of such rancour in the Greek capital in recent years. Writing in the country’s leading conservative daily, Kathimerini, on Friday, one columnist likened the dispute to the battle put up by Native Americans against the railroads in the 1860s. “Their culture couldn’t survive the advance of civilization that the railroad brought,” opined Takis Theodoropoulos in a piece underlining the inflammatory rhetoric now surrounding the issue. “And that is what worries the natives of Exarchia most.”
The centre-right government has made the cleanup of the district, long seen by conservatives as a den of lawlessness, a priority. In an effort to restore a sense of public security to a neighborhood whose anti-authoritarian culture has earned it a reputation for being a state within a state, the administration of the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, scrapped a law banning police from entering university campuses within weeks of assuming office in 2019.
For opponents, the metro line is the last stop in a gentrification scheme aimed squarely at altering the historically leftwing area. “A public work is being used for ideological reasons,” says Papakostas, bemoaning the prospect of Exarchia being overwhelmed by tourists once the station opens in a decade’s time. “And they are using public funds to police the area around the clock. It’s insane.”
But in a sign of the battle’s intensity, there are also many within Exarchia who disagree with that view.
For Giorgos Apostolopoulos, a city councilor with the centre-left Pasok party who was born and bred in the district, the metro is long overdue. “The vast majority are in favor of the metro and have been rooting for it since the 1980s,” he says, listing the benefits of a mode of transport that will not only reduce traffic congestion but help the area economically.
“It’s a sad fact that in most squares with metro stations, trees have had to be uprooted, but, as in the past, they will be replanted,” adds Apostolopoulos, a self-described green who is in charge of Pasok’s environmental policy. “The protesters, I’m afraid, represent a minority view, even if they have a point about rents and neighborhoods becoming unaffordable when the likes of Airbnb and tourists move in.”
It is not lost on opponents that the new line was approved in 2018 by a leftwing government keen to sign off on a major infrastructure work that would leave its mark on the capital.
“It was then that the impact of Exarchia’s station with all its failings on the square became apparent,” recalls Nikos Belavilas, a professor of urban planning at the National Technical University of Athens. “Metro plans have been changed in the past in this city and in this case they should be changed again,” says the academic, who headed the state body tasked with overseeing Athens’ regeneration at the time.
“It would make much more sense if the station was built a few hundred meters away 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’s square would remain intact and this dispute would be solved.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism