In the Exarcheia area of Athens, gentrification threatens to bring an end to a scene of alternative culture and protest that’s had a place in people’s hearts for decades
In the heart of Greece’s capital, the neighborhood of Exarcheia – historical center of radical leftwing politics, adored in equal measure by intellectual activists and scruffy late-night revelers – is under attack.
It starts shortly after sunrise. Trucks come ferrying workers who climb scaffolding and start cutting back trees, shielded by barbed wire and four-meter-high metal barricades, covered in graffiti. Locals shout, bang on the fences, blast out loud music all day. Riot police look on, ready to pounce.
On the surface, the ripping up of the square — it’s one of the area’s few green spaces too — is to make way for construction of a metro station, a decision taken by the conservative Greek government and the municipality. But for many people who live in Exarcheia, there seems more to it than that.
“Choosing the square as the location for the metro was a political decision,” said 36-year-old Niki, who lives a few meters away and watches the drama unfold over coffee at Kafeneio, a name that simply means “café” — telling you all you need to know about this place’s lack of pretension. “It is a complete alteration of the neighborhood’s character — which has always been radical, a place of fermentation and exchange of ideas from all parts of the society: students, workers and immigrants.”
Now, she said, it’s in danger of becoming “a Disneyland for tourists.”
This isn’t the Greece of the Acropolis, barely a 40-minute stroll away, where swarms of moneyed vacationers go to get their fill of ancient culture. It’s even further from the glitzy Aegean islands with their pristine beaches and glam cocktail bars.
Exarcheia, earthier, rowdier and far more chaotic, is just as much part of Greece’s soul.
Uprisings and protests
It was here in 1973 that a massive student uprising led to the overturn of the military junta — the right-wing dictatorship that led Greece from 1967 and whose downfall finally gave way to the country’s path to democracy.
And 15 years ago, the murder of 15-year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos in the area by a police officer caused mass protests that spread throughout the country.
In the decade that followed, as Greece’s financial crisis turned existential, the square became a popular venue for protest against the capitalist forces that were pushing the country into accepting draconian austerity conditions in return for bailouts. And after the influx of nearly a million migrants to Greece in 2015, at the height of conflicts in Syria and Libya, tens of thousands found accommodation in squats around about.
Even before preparations for the metro, a radical transformation of Exarcheia’s character had begun. The eviction of the squatters started under the term of the previous left-wing Syriza government. Current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, having placed law and order at the center of his election campaign in 2019, pledged to clean the place up. “Lawlessness and delinquency ends,” he said.
“It is obvious the neighborhood is changing in a violent way,” said 40-year-old Nikos Papakostas, who has lived and worked there for years. “This is a vendetta that the PM started before the elections. Since then, he’s behaving punitively towards the locals.”
The clearing of the squats has accelerated, and two new projects, supported by the outgoing conservative mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, the construction of the metro station and the restoration of the nearby Strefi Hill, a natural park, has fanned the flames even more.
For some, gentrification has been a positive development. The neighborhood has become increasingly popular with tourists, who stream into the area for an alternative Athens experience. It has already started filling up with Airbnb properties and hipster cafés. Time Out listed it among the 40 coolest neighborhoods on the planet for 2023.
But to many locals it seems like every day a new piece of scaffolding goes up. Protestors often attack them with paint or smash them up. Clashes between demonstrators and police, as well as detentions, have become commonplace.
“The square is the only public, free space in the neighborhood and it is going to be destroyed,” said Papakostas who, with other residents, has created a public assembly to organize protests and is taking legal action against the project. “This is our reference point.”
The metal barriers and the riot police first moved into the square in August 2022, when many residents had escaped the heat of the city. Not much construction has taken place since but the tree-clearing resumed earlier this month.
Socialist mayor-elect Haris Doukas, who takes over in January, called for the tree-cutting operations to stop immediately and expressed concern about the clashes. “An environmentally and people-friendly project like the metro should not become an object of conflict,” he said. “I want a metro, but I also want trees in Exarcheia.”
Government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis was unrepentant. “The work will continue as planned,” he said, dismissing concerns as a “sudden ache for the trees.”
The construction company said the trees will be pruned and then transplanted elsewhere, but experts say that most likely they won’t survive the transfer. The company also said that when the works are completed, less than 10 percent of the square will be covered by the entrance of the station, while a large part of it will have flowerbeds.
But Exarcheia, the way it’s been for decades, was all about what made this part of Greece so Greek. “Changes like this have already taken place in other European capitals years ago and the municipalities are now trying to reverse them,” said Papakostas. “What is happening in Exarcheia, apart from catastrophic, is horribly primitive.”
For Marianna, sipping her coffee in the down-to-earth Kafeneio, the change can be summed up more tangibly. “There will soon be no café left that doesn’t serve latte with almond or peas milk or something sophisticated and untouchable,” she said.