ATHENS – There’s a good reason why most visitors to Greece use Athens like the New York City Port Authority bus terminal, a quick layover on the way to somewhere else.
It’s because Greece’s capital, which should be a showpiece of public art, is essentially a charmless dump.
Greeks of the Diaspora like to think otherwise, romanticizing Athens for its ancient history, but the city – apart from some notable exceptions, of course – is a grey, concrete jungle devoid of grass, trees, flowers and color.
Once upon a time, Athens had plenty of wonderful classical buildings, but virtually all have fallen into disrepair and abandon because no one wants to renovate them and the city isn’t interested in its image.
The first thing many tourists see of any significance is when they come up from the Syntagma Square metro station and right before them is a giant cement dog bowl with no running water that serves as the main fountain for the City of Athens, a disgrace beyond ridicule.
Where is the shipping magnate who has plundered his country of tax-free profits to put his name on a new design there, a fountain to rival those in Rome, instead of the filthy, fetid algae pool that Athens puts on display? You can almost see the beauty of the Acropolis from there.
It doesn’t end there. Much of the city is filled with the grimy, grey cement buildings called polykatoikia that were thrown up after the end of World War II. There’s a simple solution to making them at least look better – paint them, like Miami’s old Art Deco buildings that are decorated in pastels, but no one’s apparently thought of that.
From atop any tall building, the view of Athens is dispiriting, especially once you’ve been on the roof of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris or the Eiffel Tower and see what a European city should look like.
Athens once had a river too, like all world-class cities, until it was filled in, robbing residents of what could have been a great spot to walk, like San Antonio’s Riverway, and also been another tourist attraction.
And someone should take a page from American architect William McDonough’s idea of remaking buildings by putting grass on top of the soulless structures of Athens, which would create a sea of green, make the buildings more energy efficient and put some oxygen into the smog.
Athens is filled with debris-ridden empty lots that could be turned into vest pocket parks with flowers and trees and benches and grass, but Athenians seem to prefer using them for parking cars and landfills.
It wouldn’t help the downtown, but until politicians and developers schemed to make themselves rich, there was a plan to turn the abandoned former international airport on the southern coast of the city into Europe’s largest urban park.
Now, like most of the rest of Athens, it will be turned into just another characterless forest of buildings that may look more modern but are still just buildings where Athens could have had its version of a Central Park.
Don’t look to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras for any environmental answers because he’s ready to tear down what’s left of the trees – as Athens did along a main street a few years ago – and turn them into parking lots.
Samaras is forging ahead with plans to enrich his friends by letting them build anything they want on the parts of the coastline that haven’t already been stolen by developers charging people to use public beaches and littering them with clubs, restaurants, tavernas and eyesores.
He also wants to allow development in green space and public parks so this guy is no friend of the environment or aesthetics because his type like only the Color Purple – the design of 500 euro bills, and lots of them please.
Oh, what Athens’ downtown could look like if the concrete streets had cordons of trees on either side. It wouldn’t be the Champs De Elysee in Paris or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, but it then also wouldn’t be Concrete Street either.
In December, 2012, a young very smart civil engineer, Athina Kyrgeorgiou, wrote for Global Site Plans about just how had Athens is in green space and innovation.
In 1984, metropolitan Athens had 363,000 people fewer and half the urban expansion that it has today. In 1984, 2.58 square meters of green space was allotted to each citizen but that miniscule standard has fallen to 2 square meters per resident, about a closet for everyone.
That’s four times less than Paris, 10 times less than Vienna, 13 ½ times less than Amsterdam, and an astonishing 50 times less than Washington, D.C.
One of the answers, she noted, was trees – about two to three million would be needed to improve the aesthetics, build up the green space and improve the city’s air quality, so maybe one of Greece’s rich who had their money in Switzerland could cough up purple bills for trees and even put their names on them on a plaque since these types like credit and tax breaks for their begrudging philanthropy.
While New York has Central Park and is the Big Apple, Rome with its public art is the Eternal City, and Paris is the City of Light, unless something is done, modern Athens will always be The Grey Zone.