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Introduction to Kypseli

Welcome to Kypseli

Kypseli Beer TalesI live in Kypseli. I can't really claim it as my neighborhood. That's something you have to earn by being born here or living here for twenty years just as wearing a NY Yankee cap does not make you automatically a Yankee. Kypseli is not an area where many western foreigners live though there are plenty of Africans, Albanians, Arabs and Eastern Europeans and I can't walk out my front door without seeing some exotic beauty. There are no ancient archaeological sites, no famous museums, no large department stores and really no good touristic reason to come here unless you happen to live here. The name Kypseli means 'bee hives' as in the colorful boxes you see out in the countryside wherever there is thyme or pine trees and not much else. Less then a century or so ago this area was countryside and a few scattered houses on the slopes of Tourkovounia (Turkish Mountain) just north of the actual city of Athens. Later it became an affluent suburb, second only to Kolonaki with multi-storied apartment buildings built as early as the thirties. Since then the name Kypseli has proven to be a durable one. The area is said to be one of the most, if not the most, densely populated places on the planet, a sea of 5-story concrete apartment buildings, with thousands of people stacked on top of each other, coming and going, just like a beehive.

Kypseli, athens, GreeceGreece has elevated Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis I to the status of National Hero. After all he was the one who came back to Athens to take over the government when the junta fell, and helped turn it into a democracy, though people with short memories forgot that it was the corruption of his government in the sixties that paved the way for the military Junta in the first place. Regardless, Karamanlis was a politician who did some good things. But you could also blame some of the problems of Athens and the difficulties of living here on Karamanlis. There is a photo of him from the early sixties with a broad smile on his face pick-axe or crowbar in hand as he ripped up the first of the old tram lines, signifying progress and the introduction of the automobile to the city. Sadly that was the fashion at the time and even London did it. You could also argue that George Papandreou shares the blame as well because he was presented with a plan by Doxiades that would have kept the center of Athens intact and expanded outwards with taller buildings in the suburbs, but chose to ignore it.

KypseliAthens is a city with far too many cars and Kypseli is the perfect example of how bad it can get. Athens' sea of apartment buildings is often blamed on the Junta. But actually what began in the fifties as a trickle, increased during the early to mid sixties and then during the dictatorship of 1967 to 1974 became a raging torrent and then a tidal wave during the Karamanlis years as nearly every one or two story home in the city was demolished and replaced with a five story apartment building before anyone could stop and say "what the hell are we doing?" The destruction continued until 1979 with a law that among other things saved Plaka from the same fate as neighborhoods like Kypseli.

To quote another fan of Kypseli, Dr Alexandras Lavdas of the Pasteur Institute, "Where were all the artists, architects, historians in the ‘50s? And even more so in the ‘60’s, when Karamanlis was gone and the destruction had intensified? They were too busy counting the money. Only a memorable few, like the great painter Tsarouchis were protesting that they are turning Europe’s most beautiful neoclassical city into a cheap copy of Beirut”.

Odos KypselisKypseli had been an area like Kolonaki where the upper classes had their mansions and one family houses on quiet shaded streets. Some of these survived but most did not. Even the house of Admiral Kanaris, a National Hero with the status of a George Washington, was torn down for an apartment building which bears a plaque that says that this is where his house once stood. To anyone looking in, Kypseli might seem like a nightmare of a place to live with its narrow streets, like canyons, lined on both sides with cars that have no place else to park. For me coming from the small college town in North Carolina this is as different as it can get. When some friends of ours from Athens came to visit us in Carrboro while we were home for Christmas they asked me pretty matter-of-factly: "Why would anybody in their right mind leave here to live in Athens?" Point taken. I am not in my right mind for if I was, why would I include in a guide to Athens an area like Kypseli that any sensible person would run screaming from? But things are not always as they seem once you get past the surface.

Kypseli, athens, GreeceIf you had told me ten years ago that I would spend the rest of my life in Kypseli I would have hoped it would be mercifully short. Kypselli was a place where you pitied your friends who lived there.  But after I moved here it really has not taken long to discover what is good about the neighborhood. Will it ever be a place that tourists come to visit along with the Acropolis and the National Museum? That's not very likely though who would have known in Paris that Belleville and the 20th Arrondissement would become the young people's destination that it is today. Can you compare Kypselli to Belleville? Well, if they had not torn down all those beautiful old buildings maybe Kypseli would have been a place where tourists would have wandered the tree-lined streets looking at the neo-classical mansions and old houses that once dominated but now are somewhat lost within the post-sixties architecture. But there are similarities between Belleville and Kypseli that might induce a few of the more adventurous tourists to come for a look, and would certainly beckon any bohemian artist, actor, musician or poet to consider one of Kypseli's many inexpensive apartments home for a few months, years or decades. Both are working class areas, a mixture of old, young, and immigrants and as living in Belleville gives you an idea of what it is like to be a Parisian, living in Kypseli is as Athenian as you can get these days.

food market in kypseliBut there is more to Kypseli than concrete apartment buildings and people reminiscing about the good old days. A walk through Kypseli will bring you face to face with the collision of the old and new Athens. Pick any street and you will find beautiful old houses and Bauhaus and art-deco apartment buildings side by side with some of the most ghastly concrete buildings from the seventies and eighties. Fifty years ago sheep and goats grazed in empty lots, roads were unpaved and upscale houses shared the sparsely populated neighborhood with shacks and small farms. Now its a concrete nightmare to the uninitiated. People seem surprised when I say I live in Kypseli. More surprised when I say I moved here from Psyhico. But I will take the busy but friendly streets of Kypseli over the empty sidewalks and walled in homes of Psyhico anytime. And when I explain why I like Kypseli most people admit that they have not been here in years, if ever. They just heard it was crowded and full of immigrants.

Fokionos Negri, KypseliBut in Kypseli you will find something interesting on every block, whether it is an old coffee shop that has been roasting and grinding beans since 1914, or a shop for magicians, Polish delis, art gallery frame shops, African, Hungarian, Russian and Middle East grocery stores, and tiny individual shops, the kind that high rents have driven out of central Athens. With lots of restaurants, many traditional and Greek, three massive laiki agoras(farmer's markets), rembetika clubs, cafes on Fokionos Negri, lots of artists, actors, actresses, poets, musicians, and an activist community that cares about the neighborhood, Kypseli is certainly one of the more interesting places to visit, or live, in Athens. There are also many international calling centers, small internet shops and Western Union shops for sending money home, African hair salons, Chinese clothing shops and frame shops that also serve as art galleries and just about everything but tourist shops in Kypseli.

In fact there is so much going on in Kypseli that even though its just a 10 minute bus ride, weeks will go by for me without going downtown, and when I do it's as if I had forgotten I live in Athens. People I know will see me on the street and ask when I got back from America. "I didn't go to America," I tell them. "I have been in Kypseli."

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