ATHENS – A hundred years ago, Omonia Square was filled with trees and benches and was a beckoning oasis in the middle of the city. Later, there was a fountain, before it was removed in 2000, disappearing just like the grand neoclassical buildings that stood there but no longer do in order to make room for more cars and traffic and because somebody got a cement contract to pave over the area. The shading arc of palm trees survived until the 1950’s but they’re gone now, along with the fountain and any sense of architectural integrity.
Over the years, thanks to the maladministration of successive mayors who ignored its degradation two blocks from the City Hall where they practiced politics but not urban planning, it has become what it is today: a tree-less, water-less fountain-less cesspool of graffiti, human trafficking, filth, crime, open drug dealing and prostitution. Mayor George Kaminis, a Greek-American born in New York, says he wants to change that. He won’t be able to, however, because there’s no money left in the country now that the politicians have stolen it, so the heart of the new plan to renovate Omonia is to put tables and chairs in the middle of the concrete mess around which there is constant traffic. Who thought of that? In recent years, Omonia has become occupied and overrun with immigrants, unlawful and otherwise, and few Greeks go there.
Between the economic crisis and crime, the area has become so unattractive that a dozen hotels have closed because word finally got out to tourists that once they step outside the door, they’re fair game for criminals because a cop couldn’t be found even if you threw bags of money on the street. With an election looming on May 6, police have suddenly appeared like magic to round up immigrants and get ready to cart them off to detention centers. A nice campaign gimmick, but what happens next?
Under Dora Bakoyianni, Mayor from 2000-2006, Omonia was turned into the faceless concrete pit it is today. That was the intent of another failed disgrace to renovate the square and her legacy, so you can presume the World Mayor Prize she won wasn’t for architecture. Ironic, though, the company that designed it won first prize at the European Architectural Competition in 1998, essentially winning an award for telling the city to create a cement void. When the square opened to the public in 2003, Greeks balked at what they saw, and what they didn’t see: greenery. The authorities accused the architects of inexperience and incompetence but many people thought the architects were scapegoats for the incompetence of the city officials, who hastily decided to appoint an experts’ team to rework the square to make it more acceptable, a year before the Olympics. This being Greece, nothing changed.
You can smell the grime in the air, feel the filth sticking under your shoes and see the despair on the faces of the vagrants and immigrants who are the main occupants of Omonia. Unless Kaminis finds a rich angel – maybe among the Greek shipping tycoons who pay not even a penny in taxes to their country and set up shop in other places like New York – this eyesore is going to remain that way. You don’t need an international competition or have to be an architect to realize what Omonia needs is what much of Athens needs: trees, flowers, fountains, benches, but that’s not going to happen unless someone can find a way to make money off it. Omonia is what it is: run-down fleabag hotels and a human garbage pit, and no amount of pre-election gimmickry is going to change it. What a comedown for a place that, like the main center of Syntagma nearby, was designed by the architects Kleanthis and Schaubert in 1833 when Athens became the capital of the newly founded Greek State.
Omonia has been, for generations, the place where refugees and newcomers collect, attracted by its cheap hotels and small coffee shops. In 1957, the square was completely transformed according to a new plan imposed by the Ministry of Transport and Public Works. A new four-lane circular road was constructed cutting off all pedestrian traffic to the center. That’s where you can find homeless people sleeping on urine-soaked patches of concrete or the shiftless sitting on a big cement bench beside a few wide-eyed young tourists who look like they just fell into pre-Giuliani Times Square. In the 1960’s, Omonia was a true 360-degree rotary with the center being an attraction of grass, water and a fountain and a frequent site of films set in Greece.
It’s now an inaccessible hostile place, even more so after the giant glass sculpture called “The Runner,” by Costas Varotsos, but that was moved to a grassy enclave near the Hilton. The sculpture had replaced the fountain that had stopped working, just as the one in Syntagma, which is really a big dog bowl.
“The mayor appears to have good intentions. I am optimistic about our future cooperation,” a local businessman who didn’t want to be identified told newspaper Kathimerini after meeting with Kaminis.
One of the proposals discussed at the meeting was the brilliant idea to place tables and chairs on the square, as a way to draw people to the location; that’s great if you like drinking coffee next to two lanes of cars, taxis, and trucks coming at you from six different directions, and find it easy to ignore bums and druggies and prostitutes leaning on the table. Past pledges to revamp the center have failed because of a lack of money. Last month, an international tender was launched, funded by the Onassis Foundation, for an ambitious blueprint to remodel the center, featuring a pedestrianized street that would connect key archaeological sites with the area’s main museums, which, until the recent crackdown, were used for drug dealing and public urination.
Kaminis told Kathimerini the city was working on plans to upgrade Omonia to make it look more like Kotzia Square, which is in front of City Hall on Athinas Street. Kotzia is also devoid of trees, so unless some tree distributor starts waving around bribes in envelopes, the concrete manufacturers will win again in Omonia.
“The big challenge however is to bring people back to the center; not only as visitors but also as residents,” Kaminis told the newspaper, announcing that La Mirage, an old hotel on Omonia Square, will soon be offering cheap accommodations to students. Just what Omonia needs: hostels. Maybe it’s just better to let the criminals and immigrants keep Omonia…because that’s all who goes there anyway.