The ghost malls of Athens are icons of an urban crisis – but they could be the start of a Greek comeback

Athens' not-quite abandoned malls are strange in-between places. Image: Elli Katsinavaki.

Greece has become a byword for failure, and ‘the land that capitalism forgot’ could be a phrase to easily lump on the whole country right now.

But for the most extreme example of this in microcosmic form, there are few better options than Athens’ nearly deserted inner-city shopping malls.

Dotted throughout the city’s dense central neighbourhoods, the ‘ghost malls’ have tracked the economic crisis that has gripped the nation since 2010 almost perfectly.

From fully occupied and lively to essentially abandoned to fate, they have become monuments to boom and bust.

Dead – but still open

Escalators no longer roll, potted plants grow wild, floor plans show not very much. But the perverse fascination to these spaces is that they remain at least partially in use – almost ignoring any sense of decline. In every one, a lone, bored member of security staff absently peruses the not-quite total vacancy of the place.

A couple of poorly maintained pool tables and dated arcade machines might be the main feature of a floor, or you can take a lift through emptiness to a cinema.

Cosmos mall on Kifissias Avenue, one of the city’s main roads, boasts an admin office for the Ministry of Education, but barely any retail. Those looking to register as teachers have to trust their maps app as it guides them past empty shop fronts – although they could stop by an office offering ‘Harmony and Creativity’ on the way out.

The mall’s Greek origins

The greatest of ironies here is that Victor Gruen, the father of the modern shopping mall, modelled his vision on the ancient Greek agora. These first ‘marketplaces’ were local hubs for communication and outdoor recreation, the commerce somewhat incidental.

A few lonely individuals barely populate Athens' malls. Image: Gary Hartley

It may have been the lack of fresh air or the thrust of the money-makers that meant Gruen’s vision was never truly realised, and in turn, he ended up hating what the mall came to stand for. It’s hard to know, then, whether he’d mourn or applaud Athens’ ghost ships of consumerism.

A victory for his original conception is that it’s the recreational opportunities and public goods that are keeping these malls open now – whether people come to watch a film, lift weights or get an official form stamped.

The last shops hang on

To find a handful of conventional retailers open is a rare thing. Two gadget shops – one offering slightly more practical fare than the other – are the dual survivors on a floor of the grandly titled Athens Millennium Mall, in Pangrati. When the tech evangelicals suggest that innovation lies at the heart of economic salvation, this is probably not what they have in mind.

Empty shop interiors betray the former centres of commerce. Image: Gary Hartley

The recently appointed, extremely helpful caretaker was quick to point out that this particular centre is being refurbished and rents standardised, with a view to making the swathes of empty units more attractive to potential occupants. Perhaps he is right to feel at least a little optimistic, with recent statistics suggesting that retail is bouncing back a bit in Greece.

Contrasting shops serve split city

Yet it’s also true that a small but significant percentage of Athenians have, for these last few years, lived more or less untouched by any sort of crisis. Bounce back from what, they might well ask.

Wealth was always atomised here: the ‘other half’, nowhere near a half, living at the suburban poles of the metropolis. It’s just the disparity with the vast majority of those in the middle has widened. You get a totally different sort of shopping centre in the outer circles of the city, too.

To the north, Maroussi boasts a pair of neighbouring malls that show no signs of awareness of their struggling kin. There’s the high-end Golden Hall – described as a ‘fashion destination’ no less – plus The Mall Athens, a shopping and entertainment centre that is most distinguished by being the largest illegal construction in Europe. There’s no doubt that these monoliths hastened the decline of the modest malls downtown.

It’s easy to see how ideas that the middle of the metropolis has been left to rot, malls and all, have gained credibility.

Although economic woes have touched every part of Greece and indeed Athens, it’s as you get closer to the centre of the city that they hang far heavier – bucking the international trend for the shiniest, healthiest facades being offered up to visitors in the heart of a capital.

A second life for malls?

Dying malls are of course not a uniquely Greek problem in an age of changed retail preferences, but it’s easy to feel that it’s the long-term nature of the decline that’s distinct here.

Don't look down, if you're scared of economic decline. Image: Gary Hartley

This is in spite of the fact that putting dead buildings to use has become something of an Athenian trademark in recent years, thanks to the relentless energies of the city’s community-based organisers.

Whether it’s City Plaza, the shuttered hotel that has become a home for hundreds of refugees, or Empros, the long-empty theatre that enjoyed a rebirth as a free, collective-run venue, it’s rare that dead truly means dead here.

But where America’s ghost malls are turning into medical centres, schools, churches and business headquarters, there are no signs that such innovation will – or even could – arrive here any time soon. As long as they’re open and offering scattered services, no agreements will be made for creative use of the considerable open spaces.

Playing the long game

Are Athens’ ghost malls another bleak footnote to a well-documented bleak story? Perhaps. Yet maybe it is possible to view this near-abandoned architecture in a more optimistic light. Where retail has diminished to irrelevance, the facilities still operating are often still very much enjoyed.

Typically of Greece, total surrender to fate is not an option, and it’s not only the paid services – the cinemas, gyms and lone cafes – that maintain the unlikely agora ideal. The emptiness offers up free benefits, from an impromptu meeting space for professionals amidst the high-density urban environment, or simply a location to record a beloved’s name on the wall of a stairwell. 

In spite of it all, there is a sense that Athens’ deserted malls might be resolutely staying open in readiness for the economic recovery.

In the face of Greece’s rolling stagnation, Athens’ malls are the last structures standing that still shout: ‘We’re open for business – ready or, indeed, not.’ 

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.