In the centre of Athens, a person can suddenly find themselves in a completely different neighbourhood than the surrounding ones. A reality made of graffiti, anarchy and culture, contrasting with the elegance of the nearby Kolonaki: this is Exarcheia. This district is a one-square-kilometer urban triangle in Athens' city center, accounting for only 0.21 percent of the whole metropolitan area. It has a population of 22,000 people, out of a total population of 5 million people in the city; as such, 0.6% is primarily made up of middle-class inhabitants and a large number of students, due to its proximity to the National Technical University of Athens and the University of Athens (Cappuccini, 2019). The neighborhood is often referred to as Athens' anarchist quarter, but there is far more to it than meets the eye. It is a vibrant area full of misfits of all kinds: students, artists, migrants and intellectuals, who all call Exarcheia "home."(Nast, 2020).
The reputation of Exarcheia as an anarchist bastion has certain historical roots. In 1941, the National Liberation Front (E.A.M. - Ethnikon Apeleftherikon Métopon) was created there, on Mavromichalis Street. The Greek People's Liberation Army (E.L.A.S.- Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos) was founded in 1942 at the initiative of the Communist Party of Greece, and became one of the most active forces in the fight against the Nazi-Fascist occupation. It was also the place where the first significant insurgency against the Colonels' dictatorship took place in November 1973 (Smith, 2021). The students of the Polytechnio (Athens Polytechnic), in fact, declared a nationwide strike and occupied the institution's offices for four days before the Junta crushed the uprising with bloodshed. The university served as a guide for the most radical political groups, primarily as a hub for public debate and cultural initiatives, and eventually as a safe haven during riots and police clashes.
A few years later, in 1985, amid riot demonstrations outside Piazzale Exarchion, 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas was slain by a police officer. In 2008, another 15-year-old was shot by a police officer: Alexandros Grigoropoulos. This senseless murder was not the final wound inflicted on Exarchia, but it was unquestionably the most severe and memorable (Ibidem). The corner between Via Mesologgiu and Via Tzavella has acquired a symbolic significance of its own: a plaque commemorating Alexis' murder has been placed in a prominent location, as if to remind anyone passing by of the importance of the ideas developed and practiced in this peculiar urban quadrilateral (Greeck reporter, 2021). The teenager's terrible death profoundly changed and defined the area, serving as a rallying cry for the entire neighborhood and the rest of Athens. Since then, the area where the kid was killed has been informally dubbed "Alexander Grigoropoulou Street," and residents can donate to a shrine dedicated to his brief life (Ibidem).
Exarcheia has become a haven for all kinds of outcasts in Athens throughout the years. Several socialist, anti-fascist, and anarchist organizations are based in the area. It is also a favorite hangout for students, artists, and intellectuals of all stripes. Furthermore, Exarcheia welcomed displaced migrants during the mid-2010s crisis, squatting in abandoned structures to provide them with shelter (Athens Beyond, 2020). Incoming migrant flows have increased dramatically since 2015, while Greek institutions have shown themselves to be almost incapable of meeting the requirements of the displaced people (Dilouambaka, 2020). A similar situation has raised serious concerns for Greek society as a whole (Ibidem). In Exarcheaia, the response has been swift and rests on the pillars of solidarity and self-organization. Anarchist collectives mobilized immediately when the crisis broke out, occupying several abandoned houses to provide hospitality.
Notara 26 was the first squat to open in 2015 (Bateman, 2019). The number of occupations that accommodate migrants hit 10 units within the area, making it a true reference point for asylum seekers, refugees, and sans-papiers (Ibidem). Thus, it became the location to develop a legitimate and far more respectable alternative to the overcrowded official camps run by the Greek government, which have been frequently chastised by international observers, such as Amnesty International, for the appalling living circumstances they provide (Souli, 2020). This experience contributed to the significance of the area as a place where people could express solidarity while remaining safe from Golden Dawn's pro-Nazi propaganda, which in those years was the third political force of Greece, with 17 seats in Parliament (Nast, 2020).
Today, the area where people once dared to defy the government is witnessing the general phenomenon of gentrification: one example, of which, being the expanding number of Airbnb properties in the neighborhood. Some locals argue that Exarcheia has changed, claiming that the region has transformed into an alternative entertainment and commercial brand in recent decades, with numerous touristic guides recommending it. However, despite this recent demographic shift, the spirit of solidarity and resistance that its citizens cherish will undoubtedly endure for decades (Bateman, 2019). Exarcheia's strong anarchist legacy remains, notwithstanding attempts to gentrify and kolonakize the area, thanks to various political and social organizations whose activities gained fresh impetus starting in December 2008 (Cappuccini, 2019).
On the whole, these various identities encourage a common use of space manifested in a wide range of urban practices, although preferring to operate separately. Exarcheia is a unique urban location in the Athenian metropolitan environment, as well as in the urban European picture, because of its hesitant adoption and strong resistance to severe neoliberal law enforcement. One instance is traced in the presence of numerous steki, which are well-located and known places where people used to meet, despite the area's modest size (Baboulias, 2019). It is also worth mentioning several squats (the most important being Vox, Nosotros, Steki Metanaston, and Autonomous Steki) and the occupied park on Navarinou Street, where in 2018 some residents broke the blacktop of a parking lot and replaced it with trees and plants. Various participatory organizations shape decision-making in the district: for example, one could name the Residential committee of Exarcheia, the Solidarity Network born after Syntagma, against the electricity tax imposed by the austerity measures; the Network for migrants and the Network for social and political rights. (Dilouambaka, 2018).
Exarcheia might be described as a tautological and contradictory neighborhood set in a local urban setting, a sociable and political resistance venue as well as a conflictual and violent space. Without any sort of mediation, the best and the worst collided in the same spot. Exarcheia thus portrays Athens in its duality. The drawback of urban division is the regular eruption of violence, which is usually sparked by riots against the police, as a tried-and-true model for governing the region (Nast, 2020). The current gentrification experiments are fatally eroding Exarcheia's social model, despite decades of experience demonstrating that an alternative can exist. Such a setting, in fact, is now being jeopardized: uncontrolled tourism drives up rents and living costs, causing a genetic mutation in the neighborhood's social fabric. Exarcheia is aware of this, and while being weakened and tested, it continues to do what it does best: resist.
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Souli, S. (2020, January 15). For Migrants, Asylum-Seekers and Refugees, Greece Is Hostile Territory. For Migrants, Asylum-Seekers and Refugees, Greece Is Hostile Territory; www.worldpoliticsreview.com. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28472/for-migrants-asylum-seekers-and-refugees-greece-is-hostile-territory
Cappuccini, M. (2019). Urban space and anti-neoliberal social movements: the case of Exarchia neighborhood in Athens, Greece. Business and Law Documents. Cappuccini
Dilouambaka, E. (2018). Navarinou: The Athens City Park Created and Run by Locals. Culture Trip; theculturetrip.com. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/greece/athens/articles/navarinou-the-athens-city-park-created-and-run-by-locals/
Figure 1. "No land for poor", one of the most famous murales in Exarcheia [Photo] - Itinari. https://www.itinari.com/street-art-and-counterculture-in-exarchia-t1zz
Figure 2. View from a rooftop of a street in Exarcheia [Photo] - Federica Panico
Figure 3. Alexandros Grigopoulos' memorial in Tzavella, Exarcheia [Photo] - Greek Reporter
Figure 4. Murales in Exarcheia inciting for resistance [Photo] - Squat!net. https://en.squat.net/2019/09/03/greece-first-they-take-exarcheia/