Open Letter to the Mayor of Athens

09/06/2010

To
Mr Nikitas Kaklamanis
Mayor of Athens
IN TOWN

Athens, 20th July 2010

Dear Mr Kaklamanis,

I read with interest your interview in the Weekly ‘Athens News’ of Friday, 16th July 2010, where you express your vision of Athens becoming a ‘full tourist destination’ and not just a common stopover’. It is a wish that I share but a wish that seems to be extremely far removed from current reality. By addressing this open letter to you, I hope to give you some ideas of what I mean.

The person who is writing to you has chosen to live in Athens. This is not out of need, as I am neither an immigrant nor a tourist who is visiting for the first time. I am a former international civil servant at a senior level (Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, in Albania, Republic of Korea, and Mexico) who, after visiting over 60 countries – mostly for work, and very frequently attending international conferences – and living for three months to four-and-a-half years in more than a dozen during my career that spanned three decades – has decided to settle in this city rather in her home town, Vienna (Austria). I have done this out of love for this country and for this city in particular, with which I feel deeply connected. The people I mix with are Greeks, not expatriates. I try to buy Greek products rather than imported ones, no matter how difficult they are to come by. Unperturbed by the fact that it took three years of meandering through the respective public services to get the necessary permits alone, I have invested my money here and turned a traditional house in the historic centre of Athens into a showcase of modern Greek architecture, respecting traditional styles, incorporating an international flair, which leaves every visitor in awe.

In your interview, Mr Mayor, you touch upon security and safety, upon immigrants issues and about cleanliness in Athens. These are extremely pertinent themes for me and for the people that I am surrounded by.
I am sorry to say that the only place where I have ever been personally attacked and robbed, is Athens. This happened at the end March 2009, right as I was opening the front door to my own house. Three weeks later, a visitor of mine (from Vienna) was attacked as well, as we were walking within 50 metres distance from where I live. When I leave the house early in the morning, or return at night, I am scared of being robbed – or worse – again, and I usually carry a personal alarm with me. Friends and visitors dare not leave their parked cars unattended in my neighbourhood. They often wonder whether they will reach my house, or their cars, safely. You see junkies hanging about in the streets, loitering in house entrances. Beggars and homeless people abound, lying around in public places. Squatters occupy empty houses and nobody seems to care. Dirt and filth are collected sometimes, sometimes not. The streets are scarcely lit. Friends who live in the neighbourhood are nervous about letting their children out into the streets for fear of them falling prey to narcotics-dealers. Family businesses close one after the other, and in their stead, cheap mass clothes stores open. Barefoot children roam about unattended, street fights often send scary sounds into the air – it is quite eerie.

Occasionally, threesomes of young police agents are making their rounds here until 10 pm. They are in their early Twenties and have obviously very little knowledge about what they are supposed to do except patrol. They feel incompetent to do anything else. They are hardly a deterrent for the criminals in this area, where streets carry proud names such as ‘Platonos’, ‘Iera Odos’, ‘Thermopylon’, ‘Themistokleous’, ‘Marathonos’, ‘Megalou Alexandrou’, ‘Leonidou’, and where the Statesman Perikles is supposed to be buried. Pedestrian streets such as ‘Salaminos’ or ‘Granikou’, instead of being a haven for admirers who want to explore ancient history on foot, are particularly vulnerable to assaults.

What you are saying about the feeding program that you have established, Mr Mayor, is not enough, and neither is a local multilingual radio station. You rightly say that ‘collective action’ is necessary to solve the problems of the city.
At the same time, however, you talk about faulty Government tourism policies and about the Mayor’s ‘lack of competence and jurisdiction in immigrants’ issues’.

Does not the Mayor of a city have overall responsibility over the safety and well-being of the citizens ? Is it not the Mayor’s competence to create a climate of cooperation and dialogue among all parties concerned ? Two cities come to mind where the Mayors have made a major difference in the perception of their safety and security, as well as the general well-being of the citizens. In September 2001, Mayor Giuliani’s prompt and resolute reaction pulled many New Yorkers together in their quest to overcome the trauma of 9/11. The Mayor of Tirana, Mr Edi Rama, has created a pleasant, safe, lively and mostly hygienic city out of what used to be a ramshackle, crime-laden, miserable and poorly famed town.

I personally do not believe that ‘sharper crime enforcement’ is what we need primarily. The vandalism which you point out is often the only expression of desperate people. What is needed is better, and more public, education of the citizens of their rights, duties and responsibilities. We need easier access to garbage bins and citizens appreciating their very purpose. We need more parks, more green lungs for the citizens. We need closer cooperation with, and significantly stronger support to, welfare organizations. We need better lighting in dark (pedestrian) streets. We want appropriate care for the needy such as homeless people, drug addicts, street children, undocumented foreigners who lack proper advice and guidance on alternatives to illegality. We require closer cooperation with positive, and creative, citizens’ initiatives, which thankfully already exist. We urgently need greater care for general hygiene in the city.

If Athens is to become a ‘full tourist destination’ as you point out, Mr Mayor, we urgently need a more appropriate, clean, accessible and didactic, display of the City’s treasures such as the ‘Dimosio Sima’, which currently requires the tourist to venture into this – my – crime-ridden area of Kerameikos.

What we need is more attention to the citizens’ genuine need for safety, security, hygiene, and welfare. A lot more. What we need is a sense that the City’s Administration truly cares, with the ambition to improve the overall situation.
And then we can talk about attracting more people from abroad for the purpose of holding international congresses. At this very time, Athens has fallen behind, and I personally have occasional moments of doubt whether I have done the right thing moving here and spending my pension income in this city, whose history, people and vibrancy I profoundly love.
Please help us enjoy life in Athens again.

Sincerely,

Marion Hoffmann
Athens

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