As a native of Koukaki, the neighboring Neos Kosmos had always been a kind of terra incognita for us kids from “over here”. As pre-teens, our activities were confined to the area around the local playground, while later on, when we grew up a bit (in junior high, that is), our scope of interest widened to include the local arcades and pool halls, the girls’ school on the opposite sidewalk – where we stood drooling for hours on end in the hope of attracting their attention – or venturing as far as the then-mythical Plaka, particularly for the “hoodlums” among us.
Dourgouti was a vague “over there” kind of place, where you had to cross both Syngrou and Kallirrois Avenues to get to – a long journey back then. Plus, “why would you want to go to there? It’s got nothing but ugly housing projects and car workshops”. No playgrounds, no opposite-the-Acropolis glamour, as was the preferred term for describing the spatial orientation of the lower middle class apartments that came up for sale in the classified ads’ section of the newspapers at that time.
Only when I moved “over there”, some 20 odd years later, did I really get to see it, to explore it and grasp the obvious fact that the essence of a place lies in its history, not its superficial appearance.
I’ve never claimed to be a historian, or a naturalist for that matter, but I would like at this point to make a brief description of how Dourgouti once was and what it became:
Up until and during the war, it had been pastureland (I still remember my mother talking about the shepherd who drove his flock through the riverbed to go to Koukaki, where he would sell the precious milk – a rarity in German-occupied Athens – to the locals). Its first residents were Armenian and Asia Minor refugees, who came here fleeing persecution in their countries in the 1920’s. They settled in at the southern banks of Ilissos river, outside the city’s planning zones, and built shacks with scant facilities, working hard with the little means available at their disposal. A false sense of security in a new and unfamiliar place, as well as the prospect of living in close proximity to fellow countrymen and compatriots, was what drove more refugees to the makeshift settlement of Dourgouti in the 1930’s, leading to its expansion. As problems multiplied and tensions with neighboring Athenians, who had nothing but contempt for the “dirty Turkish spawn” and their “easy women”, became commonplace, the official powers-that-be decided to intervene, beginning with the construction of the first “refugee” housing projects.
With the outbreak of the war, the subsequent German occupation and the civil war that followed, all state re-housing programs were put on hold. Dourgouti entered a new phase in its history, as its people took up arms and joined the underground resistance movement, playing an active role in historical events, most notably the “Dourgouti blockade” in the summer of 1944 and the “battle at Ilissos Bridge” during the “Dekemvriana”.
After the end of the civil war, the drama of internal migration began to unfold. A large part of that wave ended up here, in part because of the easy access to the center of the city, where there were “jobs to be had”, and partly due to the small or even sometimes nonexistent cost of settling in the vicinity of what was essentially a slum.
Faced with new problems and growing tensions, the Papandreou Administration proceeded to develop its own slum clearance and re-housing program in 1965, auctioning the construction of newer apartment buildings for the working class. The project was inherited and carried forward by the military junta in 1967, with the most iconic example being the 12-storey block of 100 identical flats in Sfigos Street.
Following the restoration of democracy in 1974, Dourgouti was still considered “over yonder”, so near geographically to the center of Athens, and yet so far away in terms of social class. It was a residential area, despite the presence of a number of small factories, car shops, salvage yards, and one of the largest open markets in the city; a tight community of working class people with – mostly – self-consciously different habits and ways of life from the bourgeois center of the city.
The workers’ apartment buildings of the junta began to slowly empty out, as the owners, or their offspring, vacated the premises in favor of newer, more comfortable flats, while the flats-for-land exchange system swallowed up the single-family homes, and the refugee housing projects of the 1930’s remained uninhabited and fell slowly to ruin, transforming the area around the brand new, shiny Intercontinental Hotel into a kind of no man’s land, where only stray cats walked at night.
All this would change - once again - with the arrival of refugees from the former communist countries, Balkan or otherwise. They came here after the fall of the communist regime in the 1990’s, eventually settling in the long-abandoned buildings and revitalizing the neglected neighborhood, only to move to better homes themselves, after getting a little taste of money, making way for new – you guessed it – refugees from Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Syria and the entire Middle East and Asia.
On the occasion of the 2004 Olympic Games, Dourgouti was gratuitously provided with a tramline to improve traffic; a ludicrously humongous metal shroud and a fountain, to hide the refugee housing projects from the eyes of our esteemed guests that were chauffeured up and down Syngrou Avenue in their limos; and with a couple coats of paint on the visible facades that threatened to blemish the sheen of the games.
After the Olympic Games were over, for better or for worse, time and the financial crisis took their toll: The tramline was partly shut down and in danger of precipitating into the river, the shroud rusted and decayed, the fountain dried up, the paint was washed out by the rain, and Dourgouti rose anew, unadorned, proudly showing what it is and has always been: A refugee neighborhood.
English translation by Panos Tomaras