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A festive boost for dying high street

Installing Christmas lights this week

By Zoe Christodoulides

Ask anyone in Nicosia about the capital’s main shopping street and you may well get a hesitant response. Officially, of course, it’s Makarios Avenue. But the ghost town feel of the place renders it a shadow of its former self.
With the shoppers now going to the old town or the mall, Makarios Avenue has come to resemble a place left abandoned in time.

But as Christmas fast approaches, Makarios Avenue has been renamed and – organisers hope – revitalised. It has now been officially deemed a ‘Christmas Avenue’ for a period of one month. A 300-metre stretch from Zara down to the Capital Centre will be closed off to traffic from December 2 until January 8, as part of an initiative by the Nicosia Municipality and the Lefkosiazo volunteer group to revitalise the capital’s commercial centre.

“The aim is to give people a different option, something new that we often see abroad as Christmas villages and markets spring to life in towns across Europe. This is a chance for people to experience different activities,” says municipal officer Katerina Andreou, also a member of the Project Nicosia team. “But more than simply showing locals something new, we want to support the centre of town and the shops in the area. Hopefully the activities will lure the crowds.”

Along with music and a variety of festivities, the Christmas event will see the erection of 18 small huts offering a range of edible delights. “There will be warm wine, fresh coffee, sweets, crepes, traditional sweets, chocolate fondue, soups and more. There will also be gifts on offer for various ages,” says Andreou.

While the huts will add a little sparkle to the avenue, the street lights won’t have a chance to shine until December 13. It has been confirmed that this later date this year is due to the recession.

 Installing Christmas lights this week
Installing Christmas lights this week

While efforts to give the area a boost during the Christmas period are all well and good, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the street. After all, this is not the first time that there has been an attempt to revamp the vicinity. In the summer months, a series of jam sessions were organised as music injected some life into the area. Back in October, a variety of pop up projects brought people onto the empty street as an arty crowd did their bit to draw attention to a now largely neglected part of town.

 Pop Up shops on Makarios Avenue
Pop Up shops on Makarios Avenue

As part of Pop Up 2013, all sorts of empty shops were transformed into artist’s workshops, theatre spaces and more – something that often happens abroad when an area has been abandoned. The shop spaces were given to young artists and creators for free by the municipality.

But once the month long project came to end, the crowds disappeared once again. And the question remains: what’s the long term solution if the street is ever to return back to its former glory? Is it really feasible that Makarios Avenue can ever become cool again?

“From the very beginning, we certainly didn’t say that this festival would bring a total change to Makarios Avenue,” insists Andreou. “It’s more about a shift in mentality, to slowly bring people back to the street, to come and have a look at something new and interesting, to breathe life into some of the empty spaces again.”

It’s worth noting that the Pop Up event is to become an annual activity that will be repeated next year. “We hope it will get bigger and better as the economy improves, to embrace new activities and support both young creative talent and the centre of town,” confirms Andreou.

The fact that seven of the pop up shops have chosen to remain open beyond October – through the Christmas period until January – can certainly be viewed in a positive light. Each Pop Up store is characterised by its own unique character. Be it photography, crafts or design, the idea is that creativity is given a space to thrive. While most Pop Up spaces are now home to young creative talent, the endeavour seems to have roused the curiosity of individuals from different walks of life.

“It might be quite empty on the street but when people do walk past, they do often come in here and ask us what we do here and what our work is about,” says one member of the Draw Collective.

While ad hoc creative projects and festive events are all well and good, what happens to Makarios Avenue once the sparkling Christmas lights come down in January?

Shops continue to close
Shops continue to close

The reasons that led the shopkeepers and crowds elsewhere are many: extortionately high rents which gradually came down but far too late, lack of parking, ongoing renovation works at Eleftheria square which cut off the old town from the avenue, and the lure of the mall are but a few. The question is, what’s next.

“The Pop Up festival was a good idea but it hasn’t really made more people come to the area on a daily basis. And the Christmas plans sound good, but we have to wait to see how that will pan out,” says one shoe shop owner. “Christmas is temporary.”

The shop owner fires off a list of changes that he believes will save the street. “We need pavements fixed; perhaps pedestrianisation. We need cafes and restaurants. We need big trees providing shade in the summer, we need benches.” He pauses, overwhelmed with obvious frustration.

“This talk is making me angry. I mean, say a family comes down Makarios Avenue; there’s not a single bench for a kid to sit down! What kind of outing is that?”

So does he believe that Makarios Avenue can ever be saved? “Ah, maybe in five years. Maybe, maybe.”

At 12 noon, the street is quieter than ever. One lady walking briskly down the empty pavement is keen to have a chat. “This is where I come for my daily exercise during my lunch break. It’s so quiet, it’s great for switching off. Look around, this can’t be seen as a shopping area anymore. It’s depressing to come here for retail therapy,” she exclaims.
But some shopkeepers are intent on warding off negativity.

“We can’t keep on saying that it’s dead down here. We need to keep on trying to make positive changes,” says Monica Economou, one of the owners of the Rainbow art shops. The shop is practically a Makarios Avenue landmark, in the same spot since it first opened in 1967.

“We all know that things are not how they used to be, but we have to look at how to change that. I do think that the authorities are slowly trying to do something positive, we can’t keep on saying that it’s just gloom and doom or it will stay that way forever.”

Another shopkeeper who has popped into Rainbow to buy some art supplies enters the conversation.
“I think it all has to do with the municipality changing the mindset of the people. Here in Cyprus, everyone goes with the trends, they simply follow others. The minute they are given reason to believe that Makarios Avenue is trendy again, they will be back,” she insists. “And also, we who work in the shops have our own role to play. We can’t have customers come in and look like we are down in the dumps. A smile and good customer service goes a long way.”

“Negativity brings on the worst,” agrees Monica. “Everyone was saying this avenue would completely die after the banking crises, but look, we’re still here surviving. And there was a festival in October and an event for Christmas coming up now.”

But what Monica is adamant about is the idea of strategic planning for the future.
“Everything must be meticulously thought out if we are to do well in a few years. We need proper town planning for what should finally become a beautiful street. We can’t have one person doing one random thing and another person doing another. And nor should it be just about cafes and restaurants like we see in the old town. Enough with that. What we need is culture in this place. And structural change. We need better pavements, shade for the summer and something that just looks appealing.”

Meanwhile, the Nicosia Municipality are still in the process of designing a grand plan for the vicinity. “We are currently studying Makarios Avenue, Stasikratous and Evagorou Street in an attempt to revive the area,” says a municipality spokesperson. “The shops will slowly be informed about the changes. Of course, we are trying to speak to them about their ideas.”

And while planning a new look for the area is underway – something which has been in the pipeline for a good few years – the authorities stipulate that they undoubtedly want Makarios to remain the main shopping avenue of the capital.

“We need the plans to mature in order for them to materialise. We can’t give dates at this point, all we can say is that discussions are underway.”

The official sentiment is clear: Makarios Avenue will be revived again. When, however, is quite another matter.

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