Restoring the Livability of Athens

City planners and citizen groups hope to scale down the metropolis to put Athenians and their visitors back in contact with the city's past.

MENTION Athens these days, and rarely is an encouraging word to be heard among the laments of heavy pollution, choking traffic, budget crises, and faceless, pell-mell, modern construction.

But beneath the multiple coats of grime and the layers of cold concrete, a new spirit is laboring to take hold and give back to the ancient capital of the Western world the unintimidating scale and inspiring attractiveness that the city has lost over the last few decades.

"What we are looking to do is recapture the historic and social identity of this city by restoring contact with its history and the way it used to be," says Alexander Tripodakis, deputy mayor of Athens. "That sounds perhaps like an unrealistic dream, but simply said we are talking about reestablishing a human scale." He adds: "We don't think that is impossible."

Despite a law that forces half the city's cars, depending on registration numbers, to stay off the streets each day, Athens and gridlock are constant companions. Ancient buses spew nauseating black smoke - when their drivers aren't on strike.

Many of the architectural jewels of the last century's neo-classical period are either lost or covered over, and most of the three- to four-story residential buildings that typified the old central Athens have given way to higher density.

Against that backdrop, city leaders and citizens' organizations are mobilizing to act: A five-kilometer (about 3 miles) pedestrian walkway - from the site of Plato's Academy, past the Acropolis, to the marble Athens stadium - is being planned to "put Athenians and their visitors back in contact with the city's past," says Mr. Tripodakis.

The city is considering an experiment this fall banning private vehicles from the central commercial triangle, bounded by Sintagma and Omonia Squares and the Keramikos Museum and ancient cemetery.

Eleven neighborhoods in the city's core, each having populations of 18,000 to 20,000 residents, are being organized around local councils as a means of heightening citizen involvement and reducing government scale. Businesses in each area are also being enlisted to increase private-sector participation in a city where the public coffers are strapped.

Dozens of old Athens houses in the Plaka neighborhood at the northeast base of the Acropolis are being restored. That project, begun under the former Socialist government and its culture minister, Melina Mercouri, is giving a taste of what some of the newer projects could bring to the city.

The wellspring of projects and ideas for restoring Athens's livability follow widespread realization that the unrestricted and chaotic growth over the past 30 years has been a disaster, says Tripodakis, an architect and city planner.

"From the mid-'50s to the '70s, Athens grew from 600,000 people to 4 million," he says. "In a matter of a few years, the neo-classical city built around the historic ruins in the 1840s was destroyed."

As waves of Greeks moved in from the countryside, the city's traditional low buildings were either added to or replaced to rise seven or eight floors. What vacant land remained on the center's periphery was filled in by illegal buildings. "That's how the monster we have today was built," says Tripodakis.

While the overbuilding, no matter how haphazard, cannot now be suddenly or easily reversed, other mistakes can be, some city leaders insist. Examples include the covering of historic facades, and especially the degree to which a city center meant for pedestrians was given over to the automobile.

"But even that won't necessarily be easy, because we have a philosophical difference with the [national] government," says Tripodakis. "The Ministry of Transportation is more interested in cleaner cars, not fewer of them. And compared to a ministry, the municipalities in Greece have relatively little power."

OBSERVERS say an important change in Athens that augurs well for the new projects to actually get done is a budding cooperation between public and private sectors.

Perhaps the best example of putting to work a concept that until recently was quite foreign to the Greeks is the city's highly praised new concert hall, locally known as the Megaron. A stunning, white-marble structure with airy lobbies and two acoustically acclaimed music halls, the Megaron is the product of a private group's love for music coming together with the government's determination to fill a cultural void.

The success of what, astonishingly, is Athens's first-ever concert hall has forced new thinking on a city better known for the bureaucratic inertia and complacency of its cultural institutions.

"It's not so usual an arrangement for Greece, the way this hall was built and the independence with which its board now makes the program and building decisions," says Rania Vouyoukalaki, spokeswoman for the Megaron. "But it is being recognized as an important element of the hall's success, and that is having an influence elsewhere."

The building was actually begun in 1956 by the Friends of Music society, and the private group got as far as building a concrete shell before work was forced to cease. In 1981 the state was coaxed to step in financially, and under the guidance of Athens publisher Christos Lambrakis the $1 billion project was completed last year.

The hall's governing board, headed by Mr. Lambrakis, is made up of representatives from the public and private sectors.

Megaron's success is having a ripple effect outside Athens as well: Already, music enthusiasts in Thessalonika in the north are planning their own music hall after the Athens model, to be ready by 1997 when that city will be the European Community's official cultural capital.

The budding hope one senses here - that Athens's future will be more inviting than its recent past - is augmented by two other projects: the construction of a new 10-mile subway line, just getting under way, and plans for a new Acropolis museum (complete with a huge window looking up to the Parthenon) along the city's planned historical pedestrian walk.

Still, not even the city's staunchest enthusiasts suggest that any important change will be completed tomorrow.

"Some work should be able to start this fall on the pedestrian project, and perhaps some actual building work next year if we can get some international financial help," says Tripodakis. "But we call this `the project of 2000' just to be safe."

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