The City

The Circus Comes to Exarchia

In the early evening on my way back home from work I pass by Exarchia Square. A small group of anarcho-punks have built a fire in the middle of the square and arranged a pair of discarded sofas around it. The fire blazes every evening, as regular as the light of an island  beacon. It’s become as much a landmark of the square as Antonopoulos’s 1933 Blue Apartments, a milestone in the history of Modernist architecture in the city (about which Le Corbusier commented, “c’est très beau”.). There’s no sense of apocalyptic Blade-Runner decay to the punk campfire. The row of cafés flanking the east side of the square—distinguishable mostly in terms of the music they play—are just as packed, as are the ouzeries and tavernas that line the rivulets of narrow streets that run out of the square.

The urban cowboys sprawled on the sofa drinking beer could be junkies, but most of them have moved the hangout six blocks away to the pedestrian allée separating the Archaeological Museum from the Polytechnic Institute. This overwhelmingly male congregation varies in number depending on weather and time of day; on a sunny Saturday there might a hundred addicts along this walkway. Even though the allée ends on the north a half-block away  where a squadron of Special Forces policemen stand watch over the Ministry of Culture, this allée is their territory. They are very much chez soi. I passed by this morning and saw a guy on the steps to an unused back door of the Polytechnic, his pants straddling his ankles, stabbing a needle in his thigh.

No one ever seems to even try to disperse them. Perhaps the police recognize the futility of such an action. Shooed away they would probably swarm back together in a few hours, like bees at a honeycomb. The allée is their home, as much as the center, though not the rim, of Exarchia Square belongs to the anarcho-punks. The core of Exarchia remains more or less unpoliced—or at least the visibility of police is deliberately kept to practically zero—though it may be one of the safest neighborhoods at night (mostly because of the many eyes on the street that Jane Jacobs talked about).

Nikolas thinks there’s a fundamental difference between the allée squatters and punk campers. The punks don’t bother him but the junkies do. He senses a threat (but is wise enough to realize the perceived danger is likely greater than the actual risk) and avoids walking down it. I imagine he sees it as an occupation force of displacement rather than the itinerant circus that has temporarily (?) set up camp in a public space. The latter may even welcome the passersby; they want to be observed (I’m sure the junkies don’t even register the passersby). The addicts do have one thing in common with the circus, though. Carnies have always been burdened with the prejudice that they are “folks apart”, freaks, unclean, even when a minority of enlightened voices may praise them as “dispensers of joy” ) And a similar uneasiness is probably evoked by the emaciated contorted addict, stumbling with hunched back along the sidewalk as if his muscles, like overstretched elastic bands, had lost all spring and tension. But the similarity ends there. It is not joy they dispense but sadness, a sadness tinged with horror that we feel when confronted with a human life wasted. And that, perhaps more than the threat of being mugged or assaulted, is a reason why few now tread the allée.


Image: Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)


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