As I am settling in Athens for fieldwork, I often find myself passing through a small charming park in Navarinou street, in Exarchia. I have undertaken some exploratory visits in the district, as it appears to be a very interesting place for the Connectors Study, and I have sometimes sat there for a coffee. Additionally, my temporary office (in the School of Education, in Athens University) is close by this small park and thus I often cross the park to get there or away. I have read and heard about this park before, but I have only walked passed it; the first time I’ve really visited it was last June, when in a methods recce I undertook in Athens with a ten-year old boy, Iason, he brought me there when I asked him to show me places he likes in his neighborhood. ‘You got to see the park’, he said and took me to this small, young and very peculiar park, in this very peculiar neighborhood of Exarchia. Exarchia is a district in central Athens, hosting today an estimated twenty thousand residents, that is well known for being a rebellious place, a place where lefts and anarchists take shelter and find inspiration. Its history summits to that – as does its present everyday life. Since the mid-19th century it has hosted the newly formed University and Polytechnic School, and has attracted students, as back then it was a place outside of the city plan that offered cheap accommodation. And thus it was here that the first students’ revolt in the country took place (in 1901), which resulted in the overthrown of the government. During the civil war in Greece the area has been a center of conflicts, with the ELAS partisans having fortified themselves in the district. During the dictatorship era in 1973 the occupation of Polytechnic and Law School led to the events of November 17th, when tanks entered the occupied university and several students were killed (and fired a series of events that led to the downfall of the military junta.)
Since then, the area has attracted leftists and anarchists, as well as several of the underground cultures of Athens, ‘bohemian’ artists and intellectuals, and it has been an almost stereotypical hangout for junkies – and sadly so, for drug dealers. All the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left-wing parties have their headquarters here and the district hosts several squatted buildings, leftist and anarchist publishing houses, cafes and bookstores, rock clubs and several other autonomous spaces. It was there that in November 1985, the murder of 15 year old Michalis Kaltezas fired a large wave of revolts and it was here again that in December 2008 the murder of another 15yr old, Alexandros Grigoropoulos literally set the city on fire, as it gave way to a huge out-brake of protests and riots. The area has very often been the site of violent clashes between police and protesters/anarchists, but the districts’ radical political character can not be defined merely by these. Many Greeks consider the district as being on the edge of an independent zone, a no-go area, where the police and the municipality have no real access, and where violence is an everyday phenomenon. To an extent this might be true, and to an extent this may also have happened intentionally, in order to create an ‘inverted state of exception’, that would serve the purpose of keeping all the radical elements of the society in one place. Both the rebellious as well as the violent character of the district are often overplayed by the media into grotesque dimensions that result into exotic or terrifying images of the place, that undermine the significance of its actual political and cultural production. (Such mis-representations are sharply criticized by the locals, as in this brilliant video that was made by students of a local high-school.) However, the locals are concerned about and engaged with politics, in several ways. The district has very powerful local ‘residents committees’, as well as several autonomous groups of citizens and activist groups for just about any social issue. There are several occupations, co-operative cafes, a volunteer-run hospital, many groups of ‘auto-education’, offering seminars and theory–reading sessions, a self-organised open-air cinema, a citizen-run weekly fair, regular open assemblies in the main square, where matters of everyday life or of greater political interest are being discussed, and, a citizen-run park: the ‘self-managed, anti-hierarchical, anti-commercial’ Navarinou Park.
In the spot where the park is today, there used to be a clinic since the beginning of 20th century, which closed down in the seventies, when the Greek State bought the property and demolished the building. Although the State promised that they would make a park in the spot, instead it was rented half-illegally to an individual who paved it and used it as an open-air parking lot. In the aftermath of December 2008 riots, and in the wake of strong and determined activist and solidarity groups’ emergence in the city, the open-air parking was squatted in Spring 2009 by the ‘Exarchia Residents Initiative’, an initiative of people determined to take action and make a park at the spot. They invited all residents in several open assemblies where they discussed the future and actions to be taken, and they occasionally defended the space against riot police who were trying to drive them away – using tear gas in some occasions. Eventually they began works and turned the space into a green park and playground, where today music concerts, workshops, theater performances, film screenings, children’s parties and other activities take place. The residents are still doing all watering and gardening and they hold an open assembly on Sundays, where the next steps are discussed and decided. When I first got in the park with Iason, I asked him why he liked the park that much. He told me that he likes it because he goes there sometimes to play, as it has the only playground in the neighborhood. He also told me that he has had his birthday party celebrated there, as did many of his fellow students. This park is made by the people, he explained to me. He went on to explain how the people, took over the place and created the park, how they built the benches and planted the trees. As he was explaining to me the processes of gardening and watering the park, I couldn’t help wonder how growing up in such a neighborhood would affect the formation of children’s political identities? What does it mean for a child to grow up in an environment of activism and radical politics, as well as to be exposed to violent clashes and criminality, in the shaping of his/her own social ethics? These are questions that are central to the Connectors Study, and this district, seems like a very good place to start asking such questions. After Iason finished explaining to me the fine details of caring for the plants, we played for a while in the playground and then we rested in the shadow of some huge trees at the edge of the park. I remarked to Iason that those trees, the big ones, must have existed there before the creation of the park, before the residents’ initiative has planted the new trees there. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘but the new ones will also grow.’
UPDATE: I’ve written up the case study of Iason with regards to public space use and perception in Exarchia, and I ‘ve presented this in the conference Places for Learning Experiences: Think, Make, Change, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece (January 2015). You can read the published version of the presentation in the conference proceedings here: “Like the Palm of my Hand: Children and Public Space in Central Athens”