Altering Exarcheia From the Square to Strefi Hill: A Timeline and Film

The Finale in our ‘Gentrification in Greece’ Series

In recent years, gentrification has significantly altered the historic Athenian district of Exarcheia, known for its anti-authoritarian and anti-fascist culture. Unicorn Riot previously examined some of the facets of gentrification and the impacts it’s having on the district, specifically Exarcheia Square and Strefi Hill. 

In this finale of our Gentrification in Greece series, we bring you to the streets of Athens to visually witness the closure of Exarcheia Square and hear from a professor of architecture and others involved in anti-gentrification efforts. This special also features a timeline mapping key moments in the two struggles from May 2022 to January 2024.

Athens has been enduring international real estate developers from Israel, China, and beyond, buying up locations throughout the city while an alt-right neoliberal government has taken over. This wave of gentrification has impacted Exarcheia dramatically and has featured an occupation of the district by police who harass and intimidate residents. Many locals have voiced opposition to development plans that are pricing them out while Airbnbs and foreign investors see profits from increasingly expensive housing. 

In turn, activist groups and grassroots campaigns from a wide spectrum joined forces against displacement, privatization, loss of public spaces and militarized control of the city. See important events in the timeline below.

Read the first two parts in our Gentrification in Greece series:

Part 1 – Gentrification Endangers Historic Exarcheia Square

Part 2 – The Different Facets of Gentrification in Greece and Beyond

Historic Exarcheia Square Closed

Speaking from inside Exarcheia Square before it was closed, Tasis Papaioannou, professor of architecture at National University of Athens, said the Square is “the breathing space of the city.” A green triangle with dozens of old trees, amid a city of concrete built atop ancient civilizations, its statues and benches were surrounded by shops with tables.

The Square was a central point where residents, collectives, and young people would meet, “claiming their right to the city, the right to have an opinion about the area in which they live,” said Papaioannou.

Locals, including Papaioannou, contend that the ideological reality of Exarcheia Square is the basis of the government’s decision to construct a new underground metro station in this location. Despite proposals for alternative locations, the government insisted on choosing the Square. 

“Although there were alternative proposals to locate the station in an area near the Archaeological Museum and the Polytechnic, the state, the government, for reasons that I think are ideological, chose and insisted that the station be located in this spot. I think the basic intention is not a station, it is not a technical project, it is a political choice of what we call gentrification, to ultimately change the character of the area.”

Tasis Papaioannou

Gentrification has taken root in Exarcheia “gradually, step by step” over many years and “aimed at big investors,” Papaioannou said. “Investors, whether Greek or foreign, are buying property in these areas, not just Exarcheia, knowing in advance that these areas are going to be ‘upgraded,’ gentrified,” Papaioannou added.

The metro station at the Square is part of the Athens Metro Line 4. Construction started in 2021 and is planned to finish in 2029. Current construction on the site has been on hold since November 2023 for further assessments. Learn more in the film.

Image of planned metro station at Exarcheia Square via Elliniko Metro
Exarcheia Square in May 2022 and January 2024 shows the destruction of the Square

Strefi Hill Reopening

During a restrictive countrywide COVID lockdown in Athens on January 21, 2021 the government announced plans to have Prodea Investments regenerate the tree-filled Strefi Hill, one of the few green lungs in a city of concrete. Strefi Hill is just blocks away from the Square in the central part of Exarcheia.

Both the Strefi project and the plans for the new metro in the Square lack public support and have thus been enforced through repressive methods. The message was clear in Exarcheia: when gentrification fails to spread in a sudden, silent way, a militarized force will impose consent in the neighborhood. 

Under the slogan, “the only lost struggle is the one that hasn’t been held yet,” groups of concerned citizens have stood up to the plans. Two days after the Prodea announcement, the Open Assembly for the Defense of Strefi Hill was formed, aiming to resist the government’s plans regarding the hill. They held their first protest, albeit prohibited during the lockdown, outside Athens Town Hall on February 1. 

A few months later, the No Metro in Exarcheia Square Assembly was founded with a mission to oppose the construction of the Metro Station inside the Square. These two assemblies together with the Coordination of Actions for the Defense of Exarcheia (Συντονιστικό δράσεων για την υπεράσπιση των Εξαρχείων) are responsible for most of the events, actions and protests held against the Metro and Strefi regeneration. 

The Coordination involved the following assemblies and collectives active in Exarcheia (Greek spelling first, followed by English translation): Ανοιχτή Συνέλευση για την Υπεράσπιση του Λόφου Στρέφη / Open Assembly for the Defense of Strefi Hill, Αναρχική Φοιτητική Συνέλευση Αροδαμός / Anarchist Student Assembly Arodamos, Ταξική Αντεπίθεση (Ομάδα Αναρχικών και Κομμουνιστών) / Class Fightback (anarchists and communists group), Κατάληψη Στέγης Προσφύγων/Μεταναστών Νοταρά 26 / Refugee and Immigrant Squat Notara 26, Συνέλευση Κατειλλημένων Προσφυγικών / Assembly of Occupied Prosfigika, and Συνέλευση Όχι μετρό στην πλατεία Εξαρχείων / Assembly No Metro in Exarcheia Square. 

On January 29, 2024, after years of protests against the projects — as depicted in the timeline above — the people’s efforts at Strefi were met with an order from the Council of State to stop construction in December 2023, canceling the Strefi Hill regeneration plan

Despite newly elected Mayor Doukas stating that “the present municipal authority is proceeding with all renovation projects with planning, consultation, together with the residents,” the reality of the corrupt nature of the previous municipality’s involvement in city planning has activists from the impacted communities on high alert over new developments. 

Strefi Hill in Athens, Greece

Privatizing Public Space and Globalizing Gentrification

The people’s struggle accentuated how the Prodea project was guided by elected officials including Athens’ former Mayor Bakoyannis who bypassed mandatory laws and committees. 

Privatization of public space under the guise of regeneration, as was attempted in Strefi Hill, shows how real estate investments spread from housing into the complete reshaping of whole urban areas with influence on contemporary city planning and the mechanisms built to deploy it. Through the prism of gentrification, real estate now acts as a regulator between the state and the market in a neoliberal context. 

Resistance campaigns to both the regeneration of Strefi and the metro station revealed to the public that Prodea’s and Elliniko Metro’s strategic partnerships are international, showing again that gentrification is a global phenomenon. A clear example of this is Savills in Greece, one of the largest commercial real estate brokerage firms in the world that boasts of international property acquisitions “through many monarchs and several economic cycles.”

Foreign investments in Greek real estate are growing and the Golden Visa investment scheme provides Greek residency for non-Greek investors. With emerging niche websites like Realty Mogul, Connected Investors and Immigrant Invest, real estate investments are becoming more attractive to outside investors.

All these investments, development plans and schemes take root over time and as Professor Papaioannou notes, “for the residents to realize it, one has to reach the limit of seeing it taking shape.” In Exarcheia, there are many who are keenly aware of the signs of gentrification going back years.

Exarcheia has seen both a significant peak in awareness with its uncompromising activism against the projects and also an increased feeling of frustration for those opposing the projects facing a lack of recourse.

On one hand, the people recently prevailed in a victory at Strefi Hill, and on the other hand is a bleak, ominous future for Exarcheia Square, which stands naked, stripped of its trees and statues and inaccessible to its people, with riot police constantly standing guard. 

An image of a letter taped to the elevator of an Exarcheia apartment building on March 27, 2024 showcases how gentrification impacts the neighborhood and how residents have to grapple with loud tourists in their building. The letter reads: “This neighbourhood is horribly gentrified in order for you to enjoy cheap vacation. Though there are some people still left in this building that live and work here. Not everything is a tourist attraction. We have to sleep so we can wake up the next day and work 12 hours and you can live your myth in Greece. Please respect that and shut the fuck up. Otherwise, just GO HOME!!”

The struggle against gentrification continues in Exarcheia. Perhaps the heavily used slogan “You will leave, not us!” written on the metal bars that cage the Square sum up the continued anti-authoritarian sentiment: the state will leave that block, but the people will remain. 

Read part one and two in our Gentrification in Greece series and find more on gentrification in London, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis in the link and image below.

Gentrification is a Global Phenomenon – Unicorn Riot Coverage

Cover image by Niko Georgiades for Unicorn Riot.

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