Athens and the War on Public Space: Tracing a City in Crisis

Athens and the War on Public Space: Tracing a City in Crisis


Reviewed by Maria-Nerina Boursinou

First Published:

30 Oct 2019, 2:47 am


Athens and the War on Public Space: Tracing a City in Crisis

Earth, Milky Way: Punctum Books, 2018; 174 pp.: 978-1-947447-46-2, £18.00/US$22.00 (pbk)


The city of Athens has a certain effect on people: they usually either love it or hate it. Over the years, Athens has become overcrowded and its green areas have disappeared. This is disturbing for a city that already suffers from poor urban planning and is dirty on top of that. So what is the element that makes an ugly city glowing in the eyes of its lovers? It is the realisation that the city cannot be conceived separately from its inhabitants, for it absorbs their paces and reflects their feelings. During much of the past decade, Athens has been a city in misery … but even in sadness, life has continued.

What Brekke, Filippidis and Vradis have put together in Athens and the War on Public Space: Tracing a City in Crisis is a rigorous analysis of the ways in which the financial crisis which hit Greece in 2008 has materialised in the public space(s) of Athens. As the deepening economic crisis intruded into people’s lives, a new, fragile social reality was created. Across the book’s six chapters, the authors discuss how in order to manage the crisis, the Greek state constructed a narrative of emergency to justify and normalise the implementation of exceptional policies which mostly affected marginalised populations. At the same time, the book reflects on the effects of the crisis from an everyday perspective, analysing the tensions and social antagonisms that take place and transform the urban landscape.

In the first chapter, by Brekke, black and white photographs set the mood. Some depict bureaucrats and riot police while others show migrants and protesters. The street is a fertile battleground for the two sides. The photos ‘interrupt’ a detailed timeline of major events which happened between 2008 and 2014. The presentation of these key incidents provides a rich context into which the book is situated, allowing the reader to draw connections between events that took place internationally as well as locally, thus enabling an understanding of the situation known as the ‘Greek crisis’.

In the second chapter, Filippidis explains the connection between ‘racism as a state choice and as state mechanism for the management of the enemy within’ (p. 68). Political discourses that attack migrants in relation to (constructed) hygienic concerns are utilized in order to create the idea of the hostile (migrant) body that threatens the Greek population’s health. This strategy paves the way for the legitimisation of the biopolitical solving of a supposed medical crisis by the involvement of any means and actors necessary. What Filippidis shows in this very well-researched chapter is how the freedom of different social groups and their existence in the public/private sphere can become compromised in the name of the nation’s cleanliness and stability, especially in times of perceived emergency. This line of thinking is further elaborated in Filippidis’ final chapter, ‘Performing the State of Emergency in Situ’, in which the author analyses, through the concept of performativity, how attempts to regularise militarised ways which target/affect wide population segments occur under the rationale of ‘emergency’. In that sense, police and counterinsurgency operations taking place in the public terrain are not mere responses to whoever happens to be ‘the enemy within’ at the time (be it ‘ill’ migrants, striking workers or protesters who disrupt the normality of the everyday and the business activity of the city). On the contrary, the presence in plain sight of the state’s repressing mechanisms serves a deeper purpose, ‘invest[ing] first and foremost upon the field of perception’ (p. 163) and aiming to establish fixed notions of what constitutes acceptable reality in people’s minds.

Later, Brekke presents the project, an online map for the reporting of racist attacks by the police and the far right in Greece. One would expect the transferal of the digital version into a printed version to take away much of its interactive nature; however, this is not the case. The narrative of the four cases that are presented is powerful on its own, yet the accompanying details make it complete. Unpleasant as it might be, the reader is able to recreate the stories in their imagination. Instead of clicking on a virtual, enlarged map, the reader has to come closer to the page and focus on the paper thumbnail as they drag their fingers to the designated location where the incident took place. The recording and exposure of these attacks in the collective memory act as an important reminder of the need to resist the normalisation of violence against migrants, especially in a period where coverage of similar actions by the mainstream (news) media is scarce.

‘Take a look at Athens in crisis: From afar, nothing has changed’ (p. 121). People still need to move, go to places, carry on living. It is between these movements, though, that the changes can be located. In the following two chapters, Vradis takes a glimpse into the everyday realms of commuters, in order to grasp the effects of the crisis on their realities and their interpretations of these. The train carriages as a space of intersection for the urban population offer the ideal location to analyse the state of being of a heterogeneous crowd briefly sharing a common public space and time. The flow of the text resembles a reflective ethnographic narrative, enriched by snatches of people’s conversations, observation of their faces and interpretation of their movements. As I read the author’s elaboration on the issue of silence in relation to language and the articulation of the crisis, I wondered about the links between these personal spheres of isolation within the public sphere of the train in relation to Lefebvre’s (1991) concept of alienation.

All in all, the book certainly offers a great interdisciplinary contribution to the fields of urban studies and politics, bringing to the forefront issues around securitisation as well as re-appropriation of the public sphere, examined from a highly critical point of view. At the same time, the case studies that have been selected, namely the biopolitical control of immigrants, sex workers and squats, also offer valuable points of consideration for those working in the fields of migration, gender studies and social movements. One of the authors’ greatest achievements is that they have created a persuasive, theoretically strong narrative that is accessible to readers who do not necessarily have a background in these specific areas. They have succeeded in analysing complicated concepts in a language that remains engaging and explanatory without being pompous. This has also been made possible by the blending of different styles of writing – flowing from academic to more prose narrative – with visual material, while the shifting from lengthy to more brief chapters prevents any overwhelming of the reader with the amount of information presented.

There are two suggestions for the authors. In Chapter 3, ‘Mapping Racist Violence’, it would be interesting if the author had included a brief and general commentary touching on the issues brought forward by the published reports. In addition, the discussion Vradis offers around the haunting silence inside the metro carriages, although quite representative of the situation at the time, does not consider the importance of the digital public sphere as a space where collective dialogue can occur. Indeed, visible traces of bodily communication between commuters might have been lost, but instead of interpreting this as a lack of action overall, perhaps it would be more useful to locate more subtle forms of interpersonal interaction that emerge in the online environment.

Athens and the War on Public Space focuses on Athens during a time of financial crisis from which Greece is believed to have escaped. However, the book remains extremely timely initially because it analyses a broader phenomenon through events of the very recent history. As such, it allows comparisons to be made between the pre- and post-crisis periods, especially now that Greece seems to be in the middle of a new kind of crisis, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. The results of this comparison point to an alarming number of similarities that continue to apply to the Athenian territory, which is currently undergoing transformations reflective of the existing political antagonisms. However, the issues discussed extend far beyond inviting us to think deeper on the relation and function of these ‘crises’ in an era of modern capitalism worldwide. The book is a great read for anyone who wishes to examine the continuity and complexity of the politics of recession in Europe from a bottom-up perspective that deconstructs the dominant narrative based on the case study of Greece.




Lefebvre, H (1991) Critique of Everyday Life. Vol. 1: Introduction. London: Verso, 2014 reprint.
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