Grass roots community action in Athens

“Navarinou Park – part playground, part open-air cinema, part vegetable garden and verdant oasis – was never meant to be. On that, all of its participants agree. Stavros Stavrides, a professor of architecture at Athens’ National Technical University, is the first to say it; so, too, do the local residents who, spade in hand, also worked to transform an unprepossessing parking lot on the rim of Athens’ edgy Exarcheia district into a vibrant community garden.

“Who’d have thought?” asks Effie Saroglou, a dancer, walking her dark-haired mutt around the park. “Who’d have imagined us ever sitting here?” says Yannis Mandris, a musician, watching a grainy rendition of Blade Runner in a makeshift arena on the other side of the lot. Something is stirring in the Greek capital – and in more ways than one Navarinou Park has come to represent it.

Stavrides calls it a movement, a new form of commons in which public-spirited individuals reclaim public space; others an informal urbanism born of a spirit of solidarity that has taken hold since Europe’s economic crisis erupted in Greece in 2009. For in Navarinou – a place run by neighbourhood committee – citizens have sought new ways of overcoming the trauma of economic collapse. And they have done so by creating a place where, self-contained and seemingly beyond the reach of authority, they can meet, converse, play and produce food.

Bereft of civic protection and the great umbrella of the welfare state, grassroots groups across Athens have followed suit. …

… “What we are witnessing is an explosion of social networks born of bottom-up initiatives,” says Stavrides, who was among the activists whose spontaneous efforts stopped [a parking lot] being turned into a parking space in late 2009. “Navarinou heralded this new culture, this new spirit of people taking their lives into their own hands. They know that they can no longer expect the state to support them and through this process, they are discovering how important it is to share.”

“Increasingly, local associations, resident committees and solidarity groups are forging ties, exchanging know-how, giving shape to new concepts of co-existence, and in so doing, reshaping public space.

“The crisis has made a lot of Greeks want to work together,” says Lydia Carras, who oversees the long-established Elliniki Etairia Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage from a building at the foot of the Acropolis. “There is a new mood of cooperation because people understand that the only way to get their voice heard is to make alliances.”

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