Reflections on the Debate “Cities in Social Crisis”

Posted on 03. June 2013

by Theodora Matziropoulou

theodora-matziropoulou-modifiedA lot has been said about the crisis and its social extensions. Middle class, citizens but also cities themselves have been reached by crisis and have to deal with challenging phenomena such as xenophobia, homelessness, unemployment and substitution of the state by solidarity initiatives. All the above were discussed during the debate took place at the closing plenary of the Annual General Assembly of the European Foundation Centre in Copenhagen on Saturday 1st of June 2013.

‘Salonika, City of Ghosts’. Still.

My contribution in the debate was to bring on the table and analyze the case of Thessaloniki, historically one of Europe’s oldest and most multiethnic cities with rich history of co-existence and tolerance among different communities. A hundred years ago Thessaloniki was a thriving, uniquely cosmopolitan city. Something that obviously is not any more. From an extroverted commerce center became an introverted city with high unemployment rates and numerous problems, which affect the quality of living.Thessaloniki was in a process of decline and introversion long before the crisis. Political decisions, local governments and the lack of a long-term sustainable development plan brought the city at a disadvantage exacerbated by the crisis. With its problems the mentality closed down and the city became very conservative. Only after 24 years, during the mayoral elections of 2010, Thessaloniki voted for a non-conservative mayor. Yannis Boutaris, a former businessman, won the elections by about 300 votes promising progress, extroversion and to become the mayor Thessaloniki did not have the last decades. Firstly, he has to overcome the difficulties, the circumstances and the budget shortage in municipal services.

There are significant differences between Thessaloniki and Athens. Although closer to the Greek-Turkish border, the main entering point of the migration flows, Thessaloniki concentrates nearly 15% of the migrant population. The majority tends to gravitate towards the largest urban center, Athens and in rural areas where labor supply is much greater. Recent is the phenomenon of fleeing migrants from the neighborhoods they lived for years and had their own businesses (or ethnic businesses). According to the local mayor, thousands of families lived in the western part of the city, left as a consequence of the crisis.

“The Hidden”

A noteworthy consequence of the economic and social crisis is homelessness. The phenomenon hit the middle class of Europe is described in the documentary film “The Hidden”, directed by Janosch Delcker, executive producer: Marian Cramers, both FutureLab members.

In Greece the number of homeless people has risen to unprecedented levels. Unofficial estimates put them at 40,000. According to European Commission, the number of homeless for 2011 amounted to around 17,000–20,000 people, a rise of 20-25% compared with previous years. A recent article on Guardian refers to the fact that proportion of Greek beneficiaries of NGO medical services in some urban centers was recorded at 60% of the total in 2012. Civil society reacts and takes over services replacing in most of the cases the state. A substitution of the state is not the ideal scenario, neither is the wait of a change. Especially when we do not know what the state will be doing in 5 years, as Jordi Vaquer, Director of Open Society Institute for Europe and main speaker of closing plenary, pointed out.

Solidarity and bottom-up initiatives. Love feasts or meals of hate?

It is true that solidarity is more efficient in smaller cities. There is intense citizens’ activism in Thessaloniki in many different levels. To overrun the misty everyday life bottom-up initiatives are blossoming. D.I.Y. initiatives, social groceries, social practices, food distribution, swap events are only a few of the initiatives have been taken the last years. Solidarity affects coexistence but not always in a positive way. For me there is a significant structural difference between solidarity of inclusion and solidarity of exclusion. “Coming-together” for some particular groups of people is exercised by giving food only after securing the holding of a Greek ID. Appealing populist methods such as free medical programs, free check-ups or blood donations of Greek blood only for Greek people emerge in the cities and should not enjoy citizens’ tolerance.

Cities’ crisis and a chance for hope.

During his speech, Jordi Vaquer underlined the fact that cities’ crisis last for many years and do not necessarily follow the economic one. I could not agree more seeing that his statement has been verified also in the case of Thessaloniki. Nevertheless, I deeply believe in the potentials of the city, which has a port of a great importance and is the second most populated city in the area that is not a capital after Istanbul. Thessaloniki has the biggest university in the Balkans, a blossoming creative economy and a vibrant and multifaceted cultural scene, which gives to the city the title of Greece’s cultural capital. Biennale of Contemporary Art, International Film Festival, a variety of museums, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments in every single step are some of the reasons Thessaloniki was presented as one of the new year’s must-see places by National Geographic. The city will be the fourth European Youth Capital for the year 2014 and will have a great chance “for the period of one year to showcase, through a multi-faceted programme, its youth-related cultural, social, political and economic life and development” and reinforce its extroversion and synergies.