Article about Exarcheia and the self-management of public space in Athens

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Exarcheia is famous even outside the borders of Greece for being the home of anarchists and anti-fascists. Other leftists, artists, academics and activists tend to flock together here as well. The whole district wears recognisable anti-establishment, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist graffiti, and riots and fights with the police are not uncommon here. Banks and cars are targeted too. One resident claimed riots take place pretty much every weekend. The police strictly guards the district borders, for Exarcheia is right next to one of the richest neighbourhoods of Athens. The district influenced Greek and Athenian history in a major way: here began the student protest in the 70s that would lead to the fall of the dictatorship. More recently, Exarcheia has been at the heart of the anti-austerity protests prompted by the country’s debt crisis, and it is famous for not only preaching socialism, but actually practising it: the many initiatives set up by residents without any governmental influence is the living example. It’s not all fine and dandy
in Exarcheia however, since it also has a massive alcohol and drug problem nowadays, and addicts make the neighbourhood feel rough and unwelcome after sunset. 


Navarinou park started out as a deteriorated parking lot in the infamous Exarcheia neighbourhood of Athens, but after the lease for the lot came to an end, the local residents took it upon them to give it a new destination and formed the Exarcheia Residents’ Initiative. In 2009, when the city wanted to build an office building on it, this Initiative squatted the place and turned it into a park. They say they needed a green space desperately: before 2004 the Greek central government promised among other things to make Athens a much greener city, but never got around to it. A social movement started to demand more open green spaces in the city instead of putting concrete building everywhere. That’s why the local residents of Exarchaia took the initiative themselves to take over the parking lot and to start making a park.


Over the years, they completely transformed the concrete slab into a luscious green public space, including a community garden, a grandstand and a playground. The locals gather every Sunday to tend to the park, and twice a month for an open assembly where they decide which function the park will take on, since its function changes according to the needs of the locals. Self-managed, anti-hierarchical an anti-commercial are the key terms for this local initiative. At the same time, the visitors of the park also get the opportunity to get to know gardening and Mother Earth while residing in the city. Navarinou Park isn’t considered an official public space, but more as a communal space that has its own forms of governing with no fixed definition or authority.  In the park everyone is welcome and refuses to sign up for the profit-driven capitalist market.


Every first Sunday of the month the park is used, for example, by the organisation HUMAN/Hombre/Ανθρωπος to hand out free food to the homeless. Instead of waiting for governmental initiatives, this group of friends decides to take matters into their own hands, by cooking and serving dinner on different locations around Athens.


In Exarcheia we also found Metaxa2, a cooperative cafe/restaurant founded and run by several neighbourhood residents. Metaxa2 is organised horizontally and serves food and drinks at a very democratic prize. They can keep prizes low because they mostly use local products, and food grown in Greece by friends, with whom they have friendly price agreements.


Text and photos by Sonderland


Read more

The history of Athens’ Exarcheia neighbourhood and its links to the very active grassroots politics.

Article in The Guardian, September 2016. ‘Athens’ unofficial community initiatives offer hope after
government failures.’