By Zoe Christodoulides
THE humble public bench has become a symbol of Nicosia old town’s rapid transformation from being the edgy hangout for alternative teens to the chosen social destination for the masses.
The teenagers, the hippy, arty types, the immigrants and the original older residents, who for years had made the area no-one else wanted their own, are in danger of being squeezed out of the picturesque narrow streets as newly opened, packed cafes and bars spread in all directions.
Similar gentrification projects in neglected urban spaces elsewhere usually mean an increased number of free places to sit. In Nicosia, it has meant the opposite. The first to disappear were some of the benches on Ledra Street. The cafes came, demanded outside space, and the benches vanished.
A few weeks ago, the public tables and benches in a space at nearby Ochi roundabout, which used to be crowded with elderly men playing backgammon, were removed and replaced with tables belonging to another new restaurant.
But the centre of the public bench battle has been focused on Phaneromeni Square. The beautiful historic buildings and large outdoor spaces make it particularly attractive commercially, and cafes and bars have rushed to conquer the area. In the process they have taken over the space that hundreds of teenagers and young adults saw as their own – free place – to socialise. Amid protest, first one bench was removed to make space for café tables and chairs. In February, another bench disappeared to accommodate even more.
When Nicosia mayor, Constantinos Yiorkadjis, addressed Nicosia residents in an open discussion last month, disgruntled youths gathered together to voice their anger that businesses were taking over.
“It’s all about catering to capitalist needs,” one young girl told the mayor.
“Where will the poor sit now?” asked another.
In a heated exchange that lasted more than 20 minutes, the mayor denied favouring the interests of private business and insisted that all public complaints were being taken into serious consideration and would be appropriately addressed.
“But we must also remember that all private businesses are entitled to their own space and they are allowed to have chairs in the outside area allocated to them, each with a specific limitation depending on the size of their business,” said Yiorkadjis. “We simply cannot stop people who choose to develop their business in the old town.”
The teenagers, however, have not been appeased. Down at the square, a crowd of teens make their voices heard. “A couple of years ago we would come here and just enjoy hanging out,” says a 17-year-old, holding onto his colourful skateboard. “Sometimes there would be complaints about us making noise if it was late and stuff but we still used to just chill out here. We used play guitar and games.
“Now, we can’t. I mean, not unless we want to sit at one of these posh cafes and spend €5 on a coffee. And then people also look at us a bit funny, as if we’re not meant to be here, as if this area is not for us anymore.”
Another young girl is more aggressive. “The fact that these places can take over public spaces and make money from it is disgraceful,” she exclaims.
A Facebook page named “Claiming Back the Public Spaces in Old Nicosia” has also been set up, criticising the municipality and demanding more public areas. Many of the posts declare that: “The square belongs to everyone.”
The public space debate is only part of a more general one over the future of the old town. And on that, public opinion is divided.
“I’ve enjoyed this area for at least 10 years,” says Nikos, a 30-year-old graphic designer. “And I remember when some people would think I was mad, calling this the run down part of town. But I loved it. It was quiet, and a little different; less commercial you could say. Now I dread coming down here. The place is just not what it used to be. It all looks a bit samey.”
Forty-eight-year-old Maria Andreou speaks out against the approach of the Nicosia municipality. “The whole attitude towards the regeneration of the old town has been very aggressive. Not one cultural space has opened up in this hullabaloo, it all revolves around the consumption of food and drink, with a random shop in between. No crafts, no arts, no proper town planning, no nothing,” she says.
Residents are also becoming increasingly frustrated.
“Cars are parked right outside our front doors due to lack of parking spaces. Have the authorities even thought about the quality of life of people living in the old town?” asks one middle-aged lady.
Nikos Nikolaou, the owner of the Hurricane tea shop that has been serving up its famous pastries just a stone’s throw from Phaneromeni Square since 1945, believes the changes are spiralling out of control.
“This is all a bubble that will eventually burst. People have been opening up shop at a manic rate and they can’t possibly all stay busy,” he says.
And for Nikos, the old town boom has not improved custom in any way. On the contrary, many of his old customers no longer frequent his establishment because they are put off by the lack of parking.
“I may now have ten new customers, but I’ve lost twenty. I think that the people who really truly used to love the old town because of its history and character, hardly step foot in the area now come the weekend.”
Like many residents, he is trusting to the fickle nature of public taste.
“I think these new crowds will go just as easily as they came. It’s all about a trend,” he says. “Once Eleftheria Square opens up, I bet Makarios Avenue will become cool again,” he adds, referring to the long delayed renovation project on Nicosia’s central square which has cut the old town off from Makarios Avenue, once the main shopping street.
Many of the café-goers are positive about the old town boom and have little sympathy for those like the teenagers who feel they’ve been ousted.
“I recognise the right of the kids to be in this area but it used to be chaos down here, at least it has cleaned up now,” says one man, sitting outside a café in Phaneromeni Square. “Teens used to light fires down here, throw their cigarette butts everywhere, get drunk and smash bottles, and spray paint the walls of the area with ugly graffiti. They have to learn to accommodate the change. It’s not all about them. The youth need to be more accommodating and not turn everything into a dramatic riot.”
“I really don’t know why some people are complaining,” says a 40-year-old passer-by. “We finally have life in the old town. It used to feel abandoned and depressing down here. Now there is a buzz, a bit like in other old European centres. If people want to relax on benches and look up at the stars or play music on their guitars, then there are parks they can go to or quieter sports in town.”
A man sitting at a nearby table nods in agreement.
“Isn’t it a nice progression that these buildings that were practically crumbling a few years ago have now been renovated? Does the area not look better? I think that the recent change has been a great one – finally somewhere that feels alive in this country,” he says. “The only thing that I would suggest is more parking; that can be a pain.”
Those who have new businesses in the area are inevitably extremely pleased with the crowds that have gravitated towards the old town.
“We would be mad not be happy,” says Christos, the manager of Coffee and Liquor, a new café that opened down Onasagorou Street in December. “We’re doing well in hard times and offering clients true quality coffee. That’s surely a good thing.”
“We opened up down here because this is where the crowds are and this is what people consider is the hot spot,” says the owner of a nearby eatery. “If we tried to open elsewhere then we wouldn’t get any customers. And the competition down here is a good thing. At the end of the day, the best enterprises will be the ones standing.”
The manager of Cerutti il Caffe, situated right on Phaneromeni Square, is adamant that a place that was once practically abandoned has now become beautiful and full of life. “This is our historic centre and I think it’s a good thing that people are now enjoying their days and nights in the area. They used to be scared to come down here but now it’s clean and approachable.”
As for the youth who are up in arms about all the new cafes, the Cerutti manager emphasises that the cafes were not trying to get rid of them.
“If they don’t have a problem with us, we have no problem with them hanging out here. We are trying to run a business, we are paying our rent and making a living, it’s as simple as that. The municipality has drawn out limits about where to put our chairs and we stick to those limits,” she insists. “The young people have to remember that this is not their space, it’s everyone’s space.”
But that begs a rather important question. If it’s everyone’s space, does everyone have to pay to sit in it?