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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Ottawa-Gatineau, the national capital which language differences nearly split into two countries

The Canadian parliament, Ottawa.

There are many single urban areas with multiple, competing local identities: from the rivalry of Newcastle and Sunderland in Tyne & Wear, to the Wolverhampton residents who resolutely deny that they are part of Birmingham, despite being in the same urban conurbation and sharing a mayor.

However, no division is quite as stark as that of the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area in Canada. Often referred to as the National Capital Region, Ottawa and Gatineau lie directly opposite each other on either side of the Ottawa River, a hundred miles from Montreal, the nearest other significant population centre. Because the conurbation straddles a provincial boundary, the two cities literally speak a different language, with Ottawa in predominantly Anglophone Ontario and Gatineau in Francophone Quebec.

This is reflected in their populations. According to the 2011 census, French was the mother tongue of 77 per cent of those in Gatineau, a percentage maintained by policies intended to keep French as Quebec’s dominant language. Similarly, although Ottawa provides some bilingual services, 68 per cent of its residents are predominantly Anglophone; Franco-Ontarians frequently complain that the city is not officially bilingual.

Although there are similar divided cities, such as the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, Ottawa-Gatineau is unique in that the city was not divided by a war or major political event: its two halves have been part of the same political territory since the British defeated the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, before either of the cities were even established. Indeed, the oldest part of Gatineau is actually an Anglophone settlement with the name of Hull (it was merged into the Gatineau municipality in 2002).

Today, the two cities facing each other across the Ottawa river have separate services, and elect difference mayors to run them: OC Transpo serves Ottawa, the Société de Transport de l’Outaouais (STO) serves  Gatineau, and few tickets are transferrable between the two systems.

OC Transpo is currently constructing a light rail system to many parts of Ottawa; but proposals to expand the route into Gatineau, or to merge the two transport systems have been fraught with obstacles. The City of Ottawa owns a disused railway bridge, connecting the two cities, but arguments about funding and political differences have so far prevented it from being used as part of the light rail extension project.

The divisions between Ottawa and Gatineau are made all the more unusual by the fact that Ottawa is the federal capital of Canada – a country where bilingualism is entrenched in the Charter of Rights & Freedom as a bedrock principle of the Canadian constitution. As a result, while all proceedings within the Canadian legislature are bilingual, this principle of bilingualism is not reflected on the streets surrounding the building.

The inevitable map. Image: Google.

These linguistic, as well as political, differences have been a long-running theme in Canadian politics. Quebec held independence referendums in both 1980 and 1995; in the latter, the separatists were defeated by a margin of less than 0.6 per cent. Quebecois independence would be made all the more humiliating for Canada by the fact it would be losing the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, while its parliament was forced to look out across the river at its new neighbours.

While Quebec as a whole only narrowly rejected independence in 1995, 72 per cent of Gatineau residents voted against the separatist proposal. The presence of many federal employees living in the city, who commute to Ottawa, meant that the city was rather unenthusiastic about the prospect of independence.

So, with Quebec nationalism currently at a low ebb, Gatineau seems set to remain a part of Canada – albeit while retaining its independent from the other half of its conurbation, across the river. While recent challenges such as flooding may have been better tackled by a unitary authority, the National Capital Region seems set to remain a tale of two cities.

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