Crumbling Athens housing complex comes to life during economic crisis

Mon Feb 3, 2014 2:47pm EST
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By Karolina Tagaris

ATHENS (Reuters) - It has been shelled, threatened with demolition and became such an eyesore that it was covered by a massive sheet during the 2004 Athens Olympics, but a historic 1930s housing complex built for Greeks fleeing Turkey is a hive of activity again.

As Greece's six-year economic slump has increased the number of homeless to 20,000 in Athens alone, NGOs estimate, the "Prosfygika" complex has become a haven for squatters and drug addicts as well as immigrants from Iran and elsewhere trying to cross into northern Europe through Greece's porous borders.

Flat-roofed and boxy, typical of the German Bauhaus school of design, the complex of eight housing blocs was considered architecturally ahead of its time when it was built in the 1930s to house some of the 1.5 million Greeks who were displaced by a 1923 population exchange with Turkey after World War One.

Today their descendants are struggling to cope with their new neighbors, reflecting broader social tensions in Greece, especially between locals and immigrants, that have intensified during recent years of economic hardship that forced Greece to require two international bailouts.

"Here, people come and go," said 76-year-old pensioner Yannis Chiotakis, one of about 30 remaining descendants of the blocs' original inhabitants, gesturing to a group of drug addicts roaming the streets.

"But I can't tolerate this. I pay for electricity, for water, for all these taxes and next door there's someone who's living for free?" he said, referring to squatters.

The complex is mostly state owned and its crumbling exterior has attracted critics who say the buildings do not belong on one of Athens' busiest streets, between the capital's police headquarters and the top court. But a 2008 decision declaring them a protected site means they cannot be torn down.

Preparing food from a soup kitchen over a donated stove in her cramped one-bedroom apartment, Emine Kilic, a Turkish mother of 10, said the family began squatting in Prosfygika two years ago when her husband lost his job as a construction worker.   Continued...

A doll hangs over a window of an apartment at the "Prosfygika" complex in Athens October 1, 2013. REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis