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Solidary for All in Greece (2): Imagine the City

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th August 2013


Excerpted from Julia Amalia Heyer‘s report for Der Spiegel:

“For Karantza, the crisis represents an opportunity for change. She and Stephania Xydia, 26, founded a non-governmental organization called “Imagine the City.” It is both a coordination office for citizens’ initiatives and a reeducation program of sorts, with the aim of improving the management of cities and villages.

The Greeks, says Xydia, have never learned to participate in and shape public life. “The government treated us like underage children, and most people were happy about it.” Xydia grew up in Luxembourg and attended university in England. She returned to Athens in 2011, after giving up her job as a management consultant in London. Her parents weren’t happy about that. “What are you going to do in Athens?” they asked? Change things, she answered.

Now she and Karantza are keeping local governments throughout Greece on their toes. With the help of Imagine the City, Greeks can exchange information more easily, including reports and statistics. As a result, it’s no longer as easy for mayors to build new town halls or village squares that no one needs — except the local officials who award the construction contracts to their friends.

Things have started changing in Greece in recent months. People are doing more than just strike, rant and throw yoghurt in protest. Triggered by the crisis, a new, unprecedented community spirit is taking shape.

There is now a civil resistance movement with different goals than simply championing a particular group’s interests.

In Thessaloniki, people aren’t just fighting the planned privatization of the city waterworks, but have formed a collective and submitted their own purchase offer. The movement is called “136,” because anyone who participates would have to pay €136 ($181) if the offer were accepted.

On the Chalkidiki Peninsula, Greeks are suddenly protesting against plans by a Canadian company and Greek construction tycoon to develop a gold mine. Protecting the environment has never been a particularly Greek virtue.

“What we have to do now is actually the government’s job,” says Roumeliotis. But the government is finished, both financially and morally. This is not necessarily bad news. But the nation is undergoing a pretty brutal awakening.

In Crete alone, there are now five alternative currencies. For some, services are replacing the euro as a form of payment, but the real currency is trust. If a carpenter needs an attorney, for example, he’ll make him a chair in return for his legal advice.

There are cafés in Athens where a guest pays for a stranger’s cappuccino, along with his own, so that people who can’t afford it can occasionally go to a café. In Thessaloniki, theatergoers can purchase tickets wth food.

If the new Greek solidarity had an icon, Giorgos Vichas would be a likely candidate. The 55-year-old cardiologist runs a clinic in a prefabricated building on the old Elleniki air base in the southern part of Athens. He works for free, as do 90 other doctors, and almost all fields of medicine are represented. Medical equipment, beds, chairs and drugs are all donated. Vichas and his colleagues do not accept money.

For almost two years now, they have served as a stand-in for the government, which can no longer guarantee basic medical care for its citizens, because they in turn can no longer afford their health insurance policies.

Up to 3,000 patients a month go through the waiting room, which looks like a makeshift bus stop, and the numbers continue to rise. At first glance, the clinic is a symbol of the hardship Greeks are going through. But it is also proof of a new communal spirit.

In the past, he didn’t know anyone who would join in a common project without being paid for it, says Giorgos Vichas. “I would never have believed that a society that was so superficial for so long could behave with such unity.”

Until the crisis, says Vichas, the only things that mattered to people were their own families and their wellbeing. And now, although they are less affluent, the Greeks are more sympathetic and compassionate. The crisis is bringing out the good in the Greeks.

Mary Karantza und Stephania Xydia, the two women behind Imagine the City, used their network to install 200 lamps on an unlit street in downtown Athens last winter. People came from all over the city to help, each bringing a lampshade. The campaign attracted so much attention that Coca-Cola offered to be its sponsor. The mayor sent the two women a thank-you card.

The city has long tried to make its downtown area, mostly home to refugees and drug addicts today, livable again. Karantza and Xydia achieved more with the new lamps than the special forces units the interior minister deploys on a regular basis. New shops have opened on the street, there are tango parties once a week and students want to live there again.

It is primarily younger people who want change and are working hard to get it. Older Greeks never learned how to do this. They became accustomed to living in a system in which connections to influential people were more important than performance. For a long time, the most fervent wish many parents throughout Greece had for their children was that they land a job in the public sector.

While the crisis may not have changed the parents much, it has clearly changed their children. “Many are still searching for a savior in politics, someone who fill feed them,” says Karantza.

She has often thought of leaving her country. Until recently, Karantza shared her office with two fashion designers. One is now living in Los Angeles and the other is in Berlin. “There are so many opportunities here to change something,” she says. “We can’t leave.”

The two women are launching their new project in the fall. This time their focus is not on cities, but on the national government. They are planning a constitution convention of sorts, which they call Politeia 2.0. They encourage anyone who wants something new for Greece to participate. Giorgos Vichas, the cardiologist, has already agreed to be part of it.

They really do want to change the rules of the game.”

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