ATHENS – Mayor George Kaminis – as many of his predecessors said without doing so – has promised to clean up the city’s center, which has deteriorated into a filthy, graffiti-ridden, crime-festered area filled with drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes and human traffickers. Much of the unlawful activity takes place in Omonia Square, once a centerpiece of greenery and a flowing water fountain, but now overrun with crime, a problem cited as a major reason why 18 hotels in the area have closed down; it is two blocks from City Hall.
The travel site TripAdvisor.com has ranked Athens the third-dirtiest city in Athens and many comments on the site recommend avoiding the city during visits to Greece. With the economic crisis limiting resources, the situation is visibly getting worse, with drug deals openly taking place and vagrants overrunning segments of the city, including areas right next to City Hall, with little police presence.
Trying to restore the city’s image and atmosphere, a difficult problem as the few remaining neo-classical buildings downtown have mostly been abandoned or covered with graffiti, while most of the structures are grime-ridden cement boxes covered with decades of soot and dirt, Kaminis met with Citizens’ Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis to discuss ways of increasing cooperation between city and state authorities to try to curb rising crime in the city center. They agreed that unlawful trade, including open sales of counterfeit goods by mostly illegal immigrants, whose population is rising, as well as drugs, prostitution, guns and open crime are the main problems. “The city is suffering a systematic decline,” said Kaminis, although he offered no solutions beyond discussion.
Chrysochoidis said: “It is a shame for a historic capital to present such an image.” They reportedly agreed on a set of measures they didn’t reveal or detail, to be implemented “very soon,” akin to similar vows by previous administrations which were never carried out. Kaminis previously has said he wanted to try to restore the city’s center to attract more business activity and night life.
It’s clear something must be done, according to travelers who have written scathing reviews online about Athens for years. “The city of Athens is dusty and dirty. Loose dogs and dog droppings are everywhere. There are beggars asking for money, and if you give them something, they ask for even more,” wrote one woman, who said she is a Greek-American disgusted with Athens. Others wrote, “Athens is just a dirty, graffiti-covered city ravaged by the tourism industry.”
Chrysochoidis said solutions must be found but offered none, except to say that he felt the historic city center of Athens is close to a breaking point, referring to districts that have been turned into “ghettos of prostitutes and drug addicts.” The Athens News Agency reported that, “Reference was again made – as in previous such meetings over the past decade or so – to step up law enforcement, joint police and municipality patrols, and move methadone centers away from the congested downtown area,” vows that have never been kept. Kaminis said this time would be different and he would return the city’s center to its people, most of whom avoid the area.
Chrysochoidis made similar promises in a meeting in August of 2010 with then Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis, who was defeated by Kaminis in the last election. At that time, Chrysochoidis presented a report he commissioned that presented 70 proposals, including identifying and breaking up criminal gangs, protecting vulnerable social groups, and relocating drug rehabilitation units away from the city center.
He said then that the problems posed by a burgeoning population of destitute immigrants in the capital’s historic center had reached “crisis proportions,” and that the police couldn’t alone restore order in the area, although he acknowledged the problems posed a risk to public health and safety, tourism and the environment. The Athens Traders’ Association welcomed that report and said it had long been lobbying for a cleanup of the center, although they complained that the delays hadn’t helped. Little has changed since then.