Friday, 23 May 2008

Necessary disobedience

THERE ARE times when the apathy and wilful negligence of elected political representation produce a counterforce so strong that unorthodoxy, improvisation and civil disobedience spontaneously well up like crude oil.

Earlier this month, about 200 residents of the central Athenian neighbourhood of Neos Kosmos gathered on a quaint patch of square strewn with bitter lemon trees called Perivolaki to share mounting concerns about the plummeting quality of life on their streets. The neighbourhood, stretching from the church of Agios Sostis on Syngrou Avenue to the hill of Agios Ioannis on Vouliagmenis Avenue and forming the bulk of Athens municipality's second department, has taken a seedy turn over the past couple of years.

What poured out at Perivolaki was several fractions of combustible frustration. One resident, a member of the prefectural council, decried the use of two abandoned buildings near her home as drug dens. The buildings belong to the health ministry, and she has petitioned unsuccessfully for them to be passed on to the municipality to be occupied and used in some way. "We talk about the need for an athletic centre for the young. Well, there's a football pitch across the street from me that's potholed and full of rubbish, " she told the assembled group in a husky voice. Another resident complained about the operation of unlicensed brothels.

Deterioration is evident everywhere. Playgrounds built under the previous mayor, now Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, are covered in profanities. Vandalised climbing frames have been patched up with odd bits of lumber or left with gaping holes for toddlers to fall through. A jaunt on the hill of Agios Ioannis reveals an equal thickness of syringes and pine needles in the areas favoured by heroin addicts, some of whom shoot up in broad daylight.

On neighbouring Lambrakis Hill, which has a magnificent view of the Acropolis, a square built in the 1980s is now used as a parking lot. Cars have crushed the flower beds that recently lined its dirt tracks and balded shrub patches to claim the shade under trees. A cafeteria among the pines that used to be leased by the municipality under Bakoyannis sits vacant. Pytheou, a pedestrian street running adjacent to the park, is used as a racetrack by local teenagers.

"It is outrageous that these things should be going on less than a kilometre from the Acropolis," one resident told the Perivolaki gathering, which was organised by Pigasos, an athletic and cultural association. The association's various petitions have fallen on deaf municipal ears, it says, and requests for meetings with Mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis have gone unanswered.

Many of the residents are willing to take action; one described how he replanted two 40-year-old trees cut down by local construction crews, and was upbraided by municipal workers; another explained how she pruned olive trees after municipal gardeners repeatedly refused to do so, and then couldn't get the municipal cleaners to sweep up the cuttings. And their anger is moving them to violence. One man suggested that the meeting march to an offending mobile phone antenna, whose removal has been unsuccessfully petitioned for, and tear it down.

Kaklamanis has not been all bad. In much of what he has done he has paid his voters back. He has shown a philanthropic streak, supporting private charitable childcare centres. In January he helped supermarket chain Carrefour open an overstock branch in downtown Athens, where about 200 of the poorest families can shop for free.

He also made Athens a member of the C40, a worldwide forum for mayors to pool their efforts to curb greenhouse gases. His first green initiative was the introduction of biodegradable plastic bags and reusable shopping bags in Athens supermarkets. Recently, he presented a new fleet of gas-powered rubbish trucks and has promised a pilot project to test low-wattage LED lighting in public spaces, which has the potential to reduce Athens' carbon footprint enormously.

Kaklamanis also proved to be a more astute negotiator than his predecessor on the city's behalf when he forced the city's soccer team, Panathinaikos, to cough up the money for their new stadium in Votanikos, which will be owned by the municipality. Bakoyannis had offered free construction in addition to free land.

But in Neos Kosmos, Kaklamanis is being criticised for his flair for showmanship rather than substance. His municipal police force, for instance, is accused of being more interested in making money for the municipality than imposing law and order because it shows up at regular hours to ticket illegally parked vehicles and then disappears. The absence of foot patrols by the Hellenic Police exacerbates the feeling of lawlessness; but by lingering on a certain beat and varying its schedule, the municipal force could supply the need for eyes and ears on the street. Even if money is the priority, Kaklamanis has shot himself in the foot by failing to extend a highly successful parking scheme begun by Bakoyannis that reserved some parking for residents and discouraged a flood of frivolous traffic from the suburbs. He was contractually obliged to do so by July last year.

Worst of all, Kaklamanis has made fools of Athenians who believed that the presence of blue bins meant the city had a recycling scheme. In fact, he has quietly refused to initiate one, saying it will cost too much to run separate collection services for blue bins, whose recyclable contents go to sorting centres, and common metal dumpsters, whose contents go to the landfill at Fyli. By law, Greece's 1,000-odd municipalities are obliged to participate, and at least 446 have done so. Both the bins and the dedicated trucks that service them are provided by the Hellenic Recycling Corporation, a state concern funded by membership fees obligatory to companies that produce packaging waste. In this way, the consumer pays the cost of recycling with each purchase.

Kaklamanis has held out for direct taxpayer money as well, and Environment and Public Works Minister George Souflias recently announced he will provide the assistance, without specifying the amount. A truly environmentally-minded mayor would surely have set aside his otherwise laudable parsimoniousness for something as important as the environment - particularly since Athens is running out of landfill space and will soon begin to despoil outlying Attica municipalities.

The prefectural council member who spoke up at Perivolaki says she is so fed up with the municipality's inaction that she will stop paying her municipal dues, which have been included as separate items on power bills since the 1990s precisely to discourage such behaviour. Others nodded their agreement.

Kaklamanis may not be to blame for all of Athens' problems, but the Perivolaki gathering shows that a campaign of civil disobedience may be necessary to wake him from a reverie of invulnerability. He was elected with 46 percent of the popular vote in a first round of voting in 2006, dealing a knock-out blow to his socialist opponent, the popular Costas Skandalidis. But unless his council responds to the bread-and-butter demands of law and order, a greener city and a recycling programme, photo opportunities will not save him from increasing mutiny.

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