Most visitors to Athens stay just long enough to climb the Acropolis hill and then hop on a ferry to the islands but in doing so they miss out on the cosmopolitan buzz of a city experiencing something of a creative renaissance. In spite of Greece's economic woes, young Athenians who jumped ship abroad are returning to revive a downtown long bereft of activity. The best place to take the pulse of the new Athens is Kerameikos-Metaxourgeio, a bustling quarter where Chinese merchants, North African immigrants, gallery owners and the café set exist side by side with the city's demimonde.
Sofia Vamiali was the first in the district to open an art gallery, vamiali.net, using a building owned by her family since the 1970s. "In the beginning it was dead after 4 o'clock in the afternoon," she says. But these days, Athens' hottest contemporary-art galleries are in Kerameikos-Metaxourgeio. In 2008, Rebecca Camhi moved her residence and gallery, rebeccacamhi.com, into a historic house on a street full of cafés run by Arab migrants. Helena Papadopoulos, director of the Berlin gallery Nice & Fit, was also attracted by the district's diversity. "The feeling I had growing up in Athens was how homogeneous it was, and this is what pushed me out of the city," she says. "This diversity is an amazing new chapter in Greek history. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have not have said I would come back." She now has a new space, helenapapadopoulos.com, in the AMP gallery building.
Developer Iasson Tsakonas, 38, has played host to several contemporary-art happenings, including "Remap" a biennial exhibition held in some of the 45 derelict or aging buildings he owns. ("We call him King Jason," artist Konstantin Kakanias says.) Many of these picturesquely decaying neoclassical houses have refurbishment potential that has drawn brave middle-class pioneers back from the suburbs. "My motivation is to create an area where I would like to hang out," says Tsakonas, who recently presented an urban-landscape strategy to city officials and has commissioned cutting-edge architects to revamp his buildings.
The district has an undeniably seedy side. Prostitution, drug use and car break-ins are rife. At the same time, there is little violence. "I actually feel quite safe here compared to, for example, New York in the '80s," American expatriate Mary Cox says. "There is not the violent undertone." The teeming neighborhood is also a beacon for a city fraught with discontent. Elsewhere in Athens, anarchists fight police in the streets. In Kerameikos-Metaxourgeio, there is creativity, purpose and hope.