Friday, 24 July 2015

Plateia Koumoundourou (Πλατεία Κουμουνδούρου)

My Athenian relatives all live in Δυτική Αττική (Ditiki Attiki: west Attica), West Athens, often characterised as a no-go area, although on my recent trip, I did once see a Chinese man on the bus with us, heading towards one of the ancient sites in the archaeologically rich areas of Ditiki Attiki, armed with a selfie stick and a Chinese guidebook. It has a depressed image because of its working class tradition and the high concentration of light and heavy industry that dominates the area. My journeys between Ditiki Attiki and Athens centre always started/ended at Plateia Koumoundourou in Athens, where the buses for Ditiki Attiki terminate. Despite being located so close to the hipster neighbourhood of Psiri, Plateia Koumoundourou is an area mainly misrepresented in the media, including travel guide books. It is no surprise that Syriza's offices have been based here since the party was created, a sign of its proletariat roots.

Despite being the headquarters of the governing political party, only one policeman was guarding the area when we passed by. There is less obvious policing in Athens since Syriza took over. The special forces (MAT) don't make regular appearances these days.

Koumoundourou Square is located on Pireos St, only a few metres away from Omonoia Square. Plateia Koumoundourou is supposedly now named Eleftherias (Freedom) Square - or so say maps and street signs. The official name is actually never used! It's always called Koumoundourou. Reporters still discuss what is going on in Koumoundourou when they are talking about Syriza. Official street names in Greece are often different to what people call them: Pireos St has the name Panayi Tsaldari St written on a sign at Omonoia Square, but no one calls it that either - it's always Pireos (it terminates close to the port of Pireas).

Ditiki Attiki had the highest OXI* votes in the Greek referendum throughout the country. It is not surprising that income levels are an indicator as to how a person voted in the referendum. The well established immigrant groups that have based themselves in Ditiki Attiki also attest to the area's predominantly working class roots.
Different worlds: The map on the left hand side shows how people voted in the July 6 referendum. Green shades indicate a predominantly NAI/YES note, while crimson shows mainly OXI/NO. The different shades of blue on the right hand side show the average level of income per suburb: the darker, the higher. For a breakdown of each area, click on the interactive map in this link.  
Pre-crisis, Koumoundourou Square was infamously known for lost-looking immigrants, Roma loiterers, drug addicts, the homeless, itinerants, and sexual solicitations, combined with cheap hostels and state-run centres for the homeless and other marginalised people in society; the main policy used to bring them here was 'not on my backdoor'. It certainly wasn't the crisis that attracted these people here, who still camp out on Koumoundourou Square. They simply found a place where they could congregate without being continually moved on - the headquarters of the left provided protection for these marginal groups.

The global media's knowledge of Greek is seriously lacking, which leads it to misinterpret the shut-down look of many stores in Athens. Looking closely at the photo of the store front on this building (located somewhere between Omonoia Square and Koumoundourou Square, across from the Syriza offices), you will notice a CLUB sign. Given the seediness of the area, this CLUB would have been anything but a club; the sign was simply there for legal purposes. The white sign with the red letters says: 'the clothes shop has moved to...'.  Closed stores are vulnerable to graffiti attacks. Street-level windows are usually kept shuttered. I used to live at street level in Athens, and literally never opened the shutters. Who wants the whole world looking into your house?

The area has been spruced up as of late, but the marginalised are still visible in the square. It is still a place where a motley looking bunch of down-and-outs continue to meet. We took buses a couple of times from here during our Athens trip. Koumoundourou Square still has a grotty grimy look to it with plenty of boarded store fronts. The immigrants stand out in the crowd: the stores in the area are mainly owned/operated by immigrants, predominantly Chinese wholesale merchants and various Pakistani businesses. There were people lying on the grass under the trees on makeshift cardboard mattresses (taken from the bins around the square, used by Chinese wholesale merchants to throw away their recyclable waste).

The villa of Alexandros Koumoundourou, bordering the bus terminals that are still located here.  

Koumoundourou Square's current political status is not a new phenomenon. It got its name from a former Greek Prime Minister, Alexandros Koumoundouros. Koumoundouros was considered a very patriotic statesman of Greece and he lived in the area now known by his name (which, during his time was known as Ludwig Square, presumably named as such by our former German-origin monarchy). His gigantic villa was still standing in the 1970s, being used as a boys' school. It was demolished in 1978 during the modernisation period of the city of Athens; its fate would have been sealed at any rate by 1981 after a big earthquake - the building was not earthquake-proof, and like many others in the area, would have been vacated and left to its own devices before being demolished eventually. Koumoundouros' name is also given to a lake in Ditiki Attiki which existed since ancient times, whose land was once owned by the Koumoundouros dynasty - Koumoundouros' sons also became politicians: one of his grandchildren went by the occupation of poet and died in London in 1980.

Bus departing from Plateia Koumoundourou: in my Athens days, buses were old and not air-conditioned. It's a treat riding them now. 

The changing people-mix of Plateia Koumoundourou is poignantly described by Vaso Nikolakopoulou, president of the Psiri neighbourhood progressive society in an article dated 2007 (ie pre-crisis):
In Plateia Eleftherias [Koumoundourou], there used to be a playground, which was removed, because it was part of the new plan, together with the removal of the benches, so that the homeless and marginalized migrants would not sit or lie there. The problem is not solved, because the homeless and marginalized migrants reside in the square and wherever there is open space below apartment blocks and on sidewalks, and there all their human needs are met. It is very important to understand the need to create hospitality center s for the homeless with the necessary requirements and for the registration of homeless people, to solve the problem, as it is very important to create a reception center, for both illegal immigrants and economic migrants. 
Plateia Koumoundourou, standing outside Syriza headquarters. The bulding behind the trees is the Athens Art Gallery, the church in the foreground is the Greek Orthodox Agii Anargyroi (Holy Unmercenaries), while the church that looks further away is the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral. For the locaiton of Plateia Koumoundourou, click here.
Lastly, the Chinese traders in the region are thriving. All the SMEs and wholesalers based in Evripidou Street [behind Plateia Koumoundourou to the left] rent out their premises and hand over their shops to Chinese traders. It is disturbing the balance of the neighborhood so much that soon, when we want to buy bread, we will only find pyjamas and slippers. This is happening in the center of Athens, in the district of Psirri, 50 meters from the City Hall of Athens and 500 meters from the Greek Parliament. Despite the problems, we love our region, as the heart of the city beats there, and we try through the Panathinea cultural association  to keep this neighborhood alive. Still, we hope that schools will be built schools here and the playground will return. We hope that tomorrow will be a better day for all the residents, workers and professionals of the area.
The playground has indeed returned on Plateia Koumoundourou, but I highly doubt that schools have been built here. The area is so run down that it is difficult to spruce it up without a thorough demolishment, something that few people will be willing to allow to go ahead. For the time being, Plateia Koumoudourou will continue to exist with most of its problems unresolveds.

I really didn't need to venture anywhere near Koumoundourou Square on my recent visit. If I wanted to, I could have taken the high-speed super-clean Attiko Metro with its archaeologically-rich stations (although I would have had to transfer to a bus at the end of the metro line at some point). But Koumoundourou Square has always been part of my psyche since I came to Greece. Its lost-looking immigrants reminded me of my parents' lost looks as they tried to fit into a country they were never comfortable living in. I don't continually look back to my past, but it still forms a major part of my identity. I wanted to give my children a chance to walk through this relatively unknown and often feared area without the prejudices it is associated with. Who knows, they may even need to frequent it at some point in time in the future, following their mother's footsteps.

*OXI - since the Greek referendum, the global world is now familiar with the Greek word for NO.

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