What Greece looks like after the economic and political crisis that hit this country in 2015, and above all, what life and engagement of people look like, we had the opportunity to see on the spot by visiting Athens. The effects of the crisis are still visible and have consequences for the economic and political life of the people of Greece. The state’s deafness to the will of the people voted in the referendum at the time, as well as the mass self-organization of people during the crisis in order to survive and preserve their basic social and political rights, led to the fact that people continued to organize autonomously, regardless of or even despite state politics and dictates of still unfavorable economic conditions. What can be seen in a sense is that people have less trust in the politics of the state and the politics of its institutions than trust in their own capacities in the political and even in the economic sense. This can be seen less in people who individually fight for a life worthy of a human being, and more in organized, connected and united people who independently organize their work and life resonating with their immediate environment – their local communities. On the other hand, the continuous development of the local communities is possible, as we have seen for ourselves while working in Novi Sad, only through the constant presence of organized civil society in it.
It was possible to get a concrete excerpt of this situation by visiting an organization that bases its work on, as they say, „citizens’ association for the preservation of the newer cultural heritage of the descriptive name – Communitism“. Namely, one of the consequences of the economic and political crisis that has lasted until today is over 130,000 abandoned buildings in a metropolis such as Athens, even in one of the central parts of the city such as Metaxourgeio, where more than 50% of buildings are ruined. To make the absurd even bigger, this former meeting place of the textile industry and crafts, located in the neoclassical architectural and urban environment, was classified by the government as cultural heritage and it is protected, but not from decay. Today, it is privately owned by people who do not have the means to take care of it, and on the other hand, the local government would be expected to approve and support organized groups of people who use, revive and thus protect these spaces. That is not the case, though.
What would also be expected is that such an environment is susceptible only to gentrification, which takes place in this part of the city as far as economic conditions allow, based largely on tourism. Yet, due to the overall crisis, the investments of investors who would turn these areas into private residences are of low intensity. However, what is happening is its transformation by engaging organized people who are working to enable the use of these spaces for other purposes.
In that sense, the self-organized social and cultural center Communitism is one of the important toponyms in this diverse community of great extremes, inhabited by migrants and drug addicts, as well as the President of Greece. The mission of this center, which was founded in 2017 and covers about 1,200 m2 of space in a building where many activities have taken place since the early 20th century (weaving factory, printing, epigraph and welding industry, school and political party offices), as the people who run it say, it is „to revive protected buildings from decay by turning them into creative common goods for activating local communities.“ It is important to note that this huge building is privately and not publicly owned and that it was possible to establish the center by agreement on its use, preservation and renovation through various activities, precisely through negotiations and agreements with the owners. So, without the participation of local authorities. According to the people who started the center, the methodology they use is to invite people to use this huge spatial resource first as individuals, in order to become active citizens through joint work and participation in decision-making processes.
What Communitism is doing is not just building management and organizing several cultural events, but giving space for communities to coexist and develop in accordance with the revitalization of physical space. From public to meeting spaces for various organizations, workshops, rehearsals for plays and concerts, performances and the many events they organize, this group also provides support to migrants temporarily housed in their neighborhood, but also gives space to large, international film crews who use this space and ambiance for their production. It is interesting that such space-giving is one of the basic sources of financing the organization and the building, in addition to more and more project work, but such that it is oriented to EU institutions and its sources of support, while at the local, city and state level these mechanisms do not exist. After the economic and political crisis, it seems that this combination of funding coming from commercial sources and from the EU level, and not from the state public budget, is an important factor for the sustainability of such non-profit initiatives.
Finally, it is important to mention the enthusiasm of the people who make up the organization and who manage this spatial resource and activities in it, and which in a sense goes beyond this project. People who work in Communitism are very aware that their sustainability is related to the opportunities that are open to this way of engagement, but also to the multitude of similar spaces that continue to decline. According to this group of enthusiasts, the only way to maintain them is to use them, so to use them in organized way. The activists of this center see one of the ways to stop their further degradation in opening the space and providing the resources they have at their disposal for the use of local communities. According to them, such places could become „reservoirs of hope“ in a depressed congested city, if we actively work and cooperate on inventing creative solutions to local challenges, including affordable housing, joint work processes and achieving civic autonomy in economic and in a political sense.
The visit to Athens and the joint meeting of partner organizations was realized during March 2022 within the project Emerging Communities: Empowerment for Social Engagement, Self-Organization and Development of Local Solutions.
Photo: Lorena di Maria, Petar Atanackovic and Branka Curcic