The economic crisis seen from the everyday

Maria Kaika

Maria Kaika

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The recent economic crisis and social unrest in Europe and the USA ignited a new and very important discussion in urban studies. The events associated with the Indignados and Occupy movements urged critical urban scholarship to push the ‘right to the city’ debate beyond its more theoretical pursuits (Merrifield, 2011; Attoh, 2011; Iveson, 2011; Soja, 2011), and to bring the link between urban theory and urban praxis back to the top of the academic agenda (Brenner et al., 2009; Dikec¸, 2007; Swyngedouw, 2011). The importance of the Indignados and the Occupy movements for forging new political consciousness and new engagement with public space lies— unsurprisingly—at the core of recent debates in this direction (Leontidou, 2010; Dalakoglou and Vradis, 2011; Springer, 2010). However, there is one important development linked to the recent crisis which, thus far, has attracted limited attention from the academic world, despite the fact that it received extensive global media coverage; namely, the proliferation of a new population ISSN 1360-4813 print/ISSN 1470-3629 online/12/040422–9 # 2012 Taylor & Francis http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2012.696943 CITY, VOL. 16, NO. 4, AUGUST 2012 Downloaded by [Maria Kaika] at 23:01 20 August 2012 of urban poor in the Western world. The new urban poor—who I shall call here nouveau poor—do not necessarily participate in the Indignados or Occupy mobilisations. Most of them belonged, until recently, to the middle classes, but were spitted out from these ranks as they lost their jobs, took massive cuts in their salaries or pensions, or had their homes repossessed. They may come from different ethnic backgrounds; they can be men or women; young or elderly; educated or not; in short, they defy classification within our established analytical categories. In this paper, I argue that the proliferating numbers of nouveau poor in European cities is a phenomenon equally (if not more) significant as the emergence of the Indignados movement, and calls for urgent attention from the part of critical urban studies. This phenomenon forces us to re-evaluate the analytical categories within which we study urban poverty (gender, age, ethnicity, marginality, etc.) and prompts us to focus on commonality, rather than difference, when it comes to collectively reclaiming the ‘right to the city’. Focusing on the political, social and affective consequences of the presence of nouveau poor on the streets of Athens, I argue that the shock waves that Greece’s nouveau poor send down Europe’s spine are partly due to the fact that Athens’ new ranks of beggars are not migrants, junkies, alcoholics or homeless; they do not fall into any of the familiar categories of the urban ‘other’ or ‘subaltern’. As they belonged, until very recently, to the mainstream aspiring middle classes, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ‘other’ them, ignore them or dismiss them politically, or socially. The presence of Europe’s very own ranks of middle classcome-poor begs for a reconceptualisation of the link between urban theory and praxis. Europe’s nouveau poor: turning a public of Indignados into a public of Desperados In Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie The Terminal, the key character, Viktor Navorski (acted by Tom Hanks), is an Eastern European who has the misfortune to clear passport control in JFK airport just minutes before his country is declared as an unrecognised state by the US federal government. With an unclear migrant status, and unable to either return to his country or re-enter the USA, Navorski is stranded in JFK and tries to find ways to make the airport his ‘home’. Today, my Greek students (alongside thousands of Greek students and young professionals across the world) feel a bit like Navorski. They came to study or gain work experience abroad with the expectation to return to Greece with better job prospects. In the meanwhile, however, Greece’s economy has been transformed by a debt crisis, and with youth unemployment currently running at 51%, young people find their prospects of returning to a job in Greece very limited indeed. The rapid social and economic changes that Greece recently underwent are already inscribed in the urban social and physical landscape. A walk through the streets of Athens today can be a confusing, or even alienating, experience. If one walks around the Acropolis, one encounters the familiar scenes of a city buzzing with restaurants and cafe´s, overflowing with people, music and laughter. However, if one ventures a few blocks further away, one encounters a very different city; a city of vacant retail spaces, boarded up fac¸ades, a city whose every niche is occupied by homeless people and beggars, and whose air is saturated with smoke from wood fires, which are increasingly used as an alternative energy source by people who cannot afford their gas or electricity bills. These changes in the city’s physical and social fabric took place over a very short period of time: just under two years. During these two years the Greek economy imploded (with public debt soaring to 347 billion euros in the third quarter of 2011 (Eurostat, 2012)), and the Greek society polarised like never before as a result of a set of ‘austerity measures’,