The Sentinels of Memory

Kerameikos  is an old part of Athens, one of its oldest. An eminently human-scale neighborhood carpeted with low-lying working-class houses from the late 19th century: squat one- or two-storey houses, with a terracotta roof and an austere façade graced by two, at the most three, tall shuttered front windows and a row of frond-shaped terracotta decorative elements that sit like watchful owls along the edge of the roof. Its proximity to the train yards and the municipal gasworks kept property values depressed and thus saved a good number of its houses in Kerameikos from the wrecking ball that reshaped other, more “desirable” areas of the city. For a while, anyway. More and more of the generation that had grown up in Kerameikos in the increasingly affluent Greece of the 1980’s left the area for the inner and then outer suburbs, ironically enough, just at the same time that the gasworks closed (1984). Houses were left untended, mired in inheritance skirmishes or divided and bequeathed to a lot of descendants who had little incentive to do anything with their 1/16th of the property.

For decades left to hibernate in its quiet obscurity, the area has in recent years been rediscovered by urban pioneers, gallery owners and new immigrants. But on most streets their work of reclamation has not yet reached a critical mass; one has the impression of scattered outposts rather than a continuous swathe of regeneration. But it is precisely this ambiguity and imprecision that is most arresting about the area.

One of the most extraordinary streets in the broader area must be Odos Iasonos (Jason Street), a strip of several blocks of mostly abandoned homes. Oh, a few of the houses have been fixed up, painted in green or blue, with bright red or yellow accents, more reminiscent of Mexico than Greece, daring bold colors as if the house wanted to sing loud, to be defiantly happy in its otherwise somber surroundings. But most have been boarded up. In some the roof has collapsed, and you can see the sky through a second-floor window. But there are also large gaps in this row of houses in which a fenced-in now grassy lot marks what once stood in its place, like the shallow trough of an extracted tooth.

The empty houses host some of the most extraordinary graffiti in the city: a trio of octopuses, a girl in braids and yellow boots painted on the rusted iron door to a back courtyard, a Chagall-like seeress alongside a huge brilliantly painted frog:  sentinels perhaps, or an old neighborhood story captured in color and shape.

Oddly enough, the city had decided to turn Jason Street into a pedestrian zone. The street is now laid with flagstones, and trees are planted at intervals along the center axis of the walkway. The greys and whites of the paving stones form a mosaic of contrasts that recapitulate the pattern of empty lots, abandoned properties and renovated homes, a place the speaks of transience and transition, of what has been lost and what is still possible.

Ignasi de Solà-Morales called these indeterminate areas that have not yet been fully re-integrated into the productive logic of the city terrain vague. In his brilliant prize-winning essay, The Belmont Tunnel and Toluca Yard, Brian Knight talks of these as “subtractive spaces”, which serve as “counterpoints to the way order and consumption control the city”. Like a comma, he notes, the terrain vague enables us to better read the character of the city.

Social, economic and cultural change have left their imprint on Jason Street, as they do on all urban spaces, layers of history and memory. But the older layers fade and become illegible or perhaps like a dying language there will soon be no one left who is able to read the inscriptions.  Knight notes that:

“This continual process of erasure can never reach a final outcome. For the city to continue to be a dynamic, exciting experience there must always be a trace of something no longer there and the anticipation of something that will be… the residue of something that has occurred and the expectation of something about to occur.”

Nowhere in Athens is that perhaps more strikingly articulated than on Jason Street, only that the traces are becoming even fainter to read and the future we anticipate more nebulous. Is it the young Chinese immigrant entrepreneur who has set up a small grocery shop on a side street off Jason, or the complex of designer apartments being built a few blocks east?

For those interested, a notable attempt to retrieve and narrate the history of Kerameikos and its neighboring district can be found in Greek in Metaxourgeio, along with some rather fascinating proposals for others blogs to explore.


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