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Rethink Athens- A clear yes or no and a possibly maybe

Constantina Theodorou

On Monday 31/03 there was a presentation for the historic centre of Athens, at the headquarters of “Anichti Poli/ (Open City),  a solidarity space for the city of Athens,  left- Syriza affiliated. The presentation opened with the talk of Gabriel Sakelaridis, the candidate of Syriza on the forthcoming municipal elections of May. Till the end of his talk there was a great question left with a doubt. Does the candidate mayor stand for or against “Rethink Athens”? There was a disappointment for many in the audience, expecting to hear a clear yes or no. To be accurate they just expected to hear the “no” answer, and they found it as a weak point of the candidacy that there is not a clear stance against what is thought to be a “beautification project” in a broken city, which is officially characterized by UNESCO as city  under Humanitarian crisis.

In an implicit way there was an answer. The candidate mayor during the presentation of his program said that “according to our views, the few available funding, shouldn’t go altogether to so called “emblematic projects”, depriving resources from the neighbourhoods. A city shouldn’t have as a trademark a “gentrified centre”.

Given that we talk about pre-election promises, (who can seriously count on them?)  it is assumed that the candidate is rather against Rethink. But is he really? And if he’s not why he’s not? But does it make any sense being for or against Rethink?

The answer to this question, is that it doesn’t really matter what  any candidate mayor thinks of it, as he will have no serious power in the process of approving and realizing this key project for the city. The decisions on the project are beyond the jurisdiction of the Municipality, on the level of the Ministry and the Region (the funding agreement was signed as follows: 38million euro from the Ministry of Constructions and 40.5 million Euro from the Region of Attiki). The mayor didn’t sign anything and he’s not supposed to sign anything since he has no money to put on this. Only for typical reasons the project is  under the  suspices of Municipality  amongst other operators.

So since the mayor can’t change anything, why should a candidate challenge what seems to be the new object of collective imaginary?

At this moment Rethink project seems to illuminate the people’s dreams, to restore the  hope for those who live and move around the centre longing to hear the sound of the first bulldozer as the bells of heaven. Lots of green, pedestrian ways, tourists ready to kill their money, not somewhere far from here, not at Hellinikon, but right here, under our feet. How could anyone tell them that it is silly to believe that just a row of trees on either side of a relatively slow tram can change their lifes? Rethink Athens did it to the heart of people through an excellent media propaganda by Onassis Foundation. (Onassis Foundation is responsible for the conduct of the contest and its communication campaign, trying to present the whole project as  Onassis Foundation’s gift to Athens)

Meanwhile in Athens there are at stake some other, much bigger- in size, budget and area projects as the privatization of the former airport area of Hellinikon. But the talk always returns to Rethink. It is because of the symbolic aspect of the project, it fullfils the need for a collective buoyancy, it is the “showroom” of the city,  it is in our daily routes- somehow, we, the people of the centre, will all have our piece of stardust from the new shiny-glossy Panepistimiou street. This is not the case of Hellinikon (on the south suburbs of Athens) -whatever happens there it’s almost invisible for us here.

This is why the confronting voices are few and limited to those experts of architecture and urbanism, who recognize all the shortcomings of the plans and the methodological mistakes, to those who disapprove the lavishness of the project in times of extreme austerity, and to those who use the ten bus lanes that will be cut. All the others consent enthusiastically.

So, why should a candidate mayor say no to Rethink?

The answer lies in a very small part in the presentation of another speaker of the event, Y. Polyzos, a supporter of Rethink project, professor at NTUA (National Technical University of Athens), and former director of the Organization of Athens’ Masterplan (ORSA). Continue reading