The City

A Residue of Critical Mass

My walk back home from work takes me along an utterly charming street in a rather distressed neighborhood. The gently sloping, narrow street is lined on each side with densely planted acacia and bitter-orange trees which converge overhead in a graceful lattice of limbs and leaves. The street bears the name of a 19th century French publisher, Ambroise Firmin Didot, who first published Henry Stephens’ Thesaurus Graecae Linguae and by whose side the first Greek printer of independent Greece had learned his trade. Curiously enough, it is still home to the ateliers of the few remaining bookbinders in Athens and the workshops of a handful of small-press publishers, as well as to small cafés and quirky record shops.

It is an Athens of another era, even if its walls bear posters for concerts of psychedelic trance and anarchist rallies. A good number of the apartment buildings here pre-date the insipid slabs of housing which were built in a frenzy of real-estate speculation in the 70’s and 80’s and which asphyxiate so many other parts of the city. Indeed some of the earlier pre-war buildings are quite handsome and elegant, if somewhat worse for wear, a bit like their carefully coiffed elderly women residents who can be seen shopping at the neighborhood green-grocer attired in the finely tailored clothes of an earlier decade.

As I walked down Didotou last evening on my way home I noticed in the distance a constellation of tiny lights the seemed to be moving up the street. As the lights got closer I realized they came from dozens of bicycles which had filled the street and like a dense school of silvery fish in a narrow sea channel, were making their way up Didotou. The cyclists were mostly but not all young, some dressed in bike gear and sporting whistles, others in street clothes, but all in a celebratory mood. Yes, it did seem to me like a party and a defiant one at that, this reclamation of public space for a use which would so benefit the city but which little or no effort has been made to encourage or which, in the case of the Metro, measures are in place to discourage.

This marvelous wheeled parade seemed to go on and on, and like a kid at a fireworks display, I didn’t want it to end and was thankful for each additional blast of riders that appeared turned the corner into the street.

I think I was witness to a critical mass ride, a self-organizing bikes-take-to-the-road happening that began in San Francisco in 1992 (for an intriguing insider’s account of the first SF rides, see  Chris Carlsson’s  Critical Mass From the Inside Out). On the first and third Monday of each month, cyclists gather at a specific point in Athens and other Greek cities (more info at the Greek critical-mass-site). As soon as a critical mass of riders is accumulated—a certain density of riders is needed to successfully displace the cars from the road they’re riding on—the cyclists start off on a ride through the city as a way of demonstrating that they, too, have a right to the road.  Or perhaps more tellingly, as a way of accustoming people to the presence of cyclists on the street, of making the unimaginable, imaginable. The success of such an initiative depends on its frequency and duration. The more often it is repeated, the more greater the impact on the collective urban consciousness, the more visible the trace it leaves in the streets of the city.

Witnessing this bevy of bicycle lights swarming up Didotou Street and wondering what would remain of this wonderful initiative a year later, I thought of Michael Wesley’s extraordinary and beautiful long-exposure photographs I had seen at the exhibition Art Between Traces of the Past and Urban Futures at the Berlinische Gallerie (which has been extended until February 14th). In one of them, Wesely had set up his camera to photograph—in a single, 28-month-long exposure—the dismantling of the asbestos-plagued former East-Berlin monument, the Palast der Republik  In the photograph, the sun has left its mark in the arches of light that sweep across the sky and in the specks of greenish light in the river below. The Palast itself appears as a faint empty shell illuminated from within, a looming ghost-building that is there and not there at the same time. And then there are these blips of light that appear in the oddest of places, along, say, a ramp that descends from a bridge to the river, left by… what, though? The beacon of a policeman on his nightly watch?  Or perhaps the headlights of cyclists riding along the riverside path?

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Image: Michael Wesely, Palast der Republik, 2009

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