“In the night air they passed the shells of concrete towers, blockhouses half buried in rubble, giant conduits filled with tyres, overhead causeways crossing broken roads [….] In the suburbs of Hell, Travis walked in the flaring light of the petrochemical plants”
J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition
Across the impressive new port of Patras in southwestern Greece, stand the ghostly remains of the city’s old industrial zone. The contrast couldn’t be starker : On one side, the EU funded, newly built, well appointed terminal buildings standing amidst tidy green spaces and fronted by a surprisingly orderly parking lot, and on the opposite side the darkened, hulking factory complex of the E.G. Ladopoulos Paper Mill, once the largest paper factory in the Balkans during its interwar heyday, and now a crumbling industrial ruin.
As opposed to most derelict building complexes, I found out this one was not entirely abandoned. The local municipality has re-purposed some of the more recently built office and workshop blocks and uses them to accommodate some of its arcane agencies and numerous quangos. Τhey are the quietly extant paraphernalia of an enormous Greek public sector, that expands ad infinitum like a self-perpetuating universe since the big socialist bang of the 1981 elections, the point in recent Greek history where the office of the public servant was elevated to the pinnacle of social hierarchy, and the floodgates to easier, higher paid – and often non existent – jobs opened for half the Greek workforce. The roots of most social, economic and moral failures of the Greek state as often related today, can be safely traced back to that point in time.
Seeing the quietly unassuming offices next to the empty factory one cannot but ponder the role this Greek brand of unbridled bourgeois socialism played in the demise of the historic paper mill : Beset by foreign competition, back to back strikes, increasing labour costs and an arrogant, big spending state with a voracious appetite for worker’s votes albeit increasingly hostile to capital – the once leading factory finally foundered in 1991, leaving 1200 workers unemployed and starting the downward spiral of decay witnessed inside its space. It wasn’t the only one : the sad EGL failure story mirrors those of pretty much the entire industrial sector of Patras, where textiles, refrigerators, spirits, canneries, pasta and tyres were once made, keeping tens of thousands of people employed.. a legend persists where Leopoldo Pirelli of the well known tyre brand fame, fed up with the prolonged, successive strikes decided to instantly shut down Pirelli’s huge factory in Patra during a heated phonecall with the local management and promptly relocated it to Turkey overnight. Today, unemployment rates in Patra are among the highest in Greece with youth unemployment in particular at a painful 60%, one of the highest rates in Europe.
Inside the eerily quiet shell of the factory, forces of nature have taken over : A thick, soft layer of dust, cotton fluff and other particles retain enough moisture from the raindrops trickling through the ceiling to provide a fertile topsoil of sorts. As a result, lush greenery is rising from the floor and branching vines are weaving through broken glass panels, choking the massive concrete beams – like an imaginary lost Inca temple in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. The light is coming down in thick rays from the panel openings, giving the vast floor space a creepy aura of mystery. Abandoned machinery is submerged in the rain flooded engineering pits. Massive cranes are barely hanging from roof beams so immensely tall and dark, where their chains and pulleys vanish beyond eyesight. Mountains of rubbish from the municipality’s various functions and support sectors are heaped closer to the entrances : They seem to seldom venture further than they can fly tip inside the dark building. Shadows move quickly across the floor in the half-light of the afternoon, almost imperceptibly quick and wanting to stay out of sight, but sooner or later we cross paths with the mysterious tribe that inhabit this sprawling urban jungle.
On the back of the post-Fordist tragedy of industry failure we described earlier, there’s another, more recent drama casting its grim shadow on Patra’s factory ruins. Already when approaching the port from the western motorway, one happens upon the sight of several migrants, clinging on the tall metal fence staring at the immense ferries to Italy. Dark skinned, raven haired and rugged, they’re looking for a chance to scale the fence and run inside the port, hide inside the lorries or through an open loading door into the dark hull of a ferry and, hopefully, emerge to Bari, Brindisi or Ancona in neighbouring Italy about 24 hours later. I stood witness of their daily battle with port security and local police several times : A police car is parked next to the fence, sirens blaring. A couple of grey port authority jeeps are constantly driving up and down the port loading area and in the parking lot, where lorries are lining up for embarkation. Two police motorbikes are racing up and down the 6 lane motorway that separates the port from the abandoned factories, out of whose rusty gates and torn down walls, a hundred migrants emerge in a sudden, single wave and charge onto a wide area of the port fence. The two motorbikes rev up and attack them, trying to corral the human wave away from the fence, but they are almost comically inadequate in doing so. The motorbikes drive in circles, charge the smaller groups of migrants, single out the slowest among them and harass them back to the relative safety of the factory. I can see some of them have managed to climb over the fence and already heading towards the lorries, but most of the times this progress is futile : The port authority jeeps and sometimes the seamen themselves will probably find them out and kick them back outside, or even worse give them a beating. This desperate charge and ensuing chase repeats several times each day and night – the port of Patras never sleeps, and they don’t either.
Between these desperate port assaults, the refugees take shelter inside the old factories across the port. They are a mixed community of Afghanis, Pakistanis and other, mostly Eastern or African nationalities. Their ragged tents are pitched at the somewhat tidier upper levels. They light fires to warm up, cook and wash, using whatever material has been lying around the factory quarter : paper, wood, textiles, sometimes plastic sheets. The thick, often choking smoke blackens the walls and alcoves around which they congregate and talk to us – of faraway lands and dreams of the West, of friends and relatives awaiting for them there, of studies unfinished and lives yet incomplete – and of the violence they often endure in the hands of the authorities. I don’t feel threatened among them, although I can’t help thinking about what cliff edges such miserable existence might be pushing them towards.
At a corner of the ground level, an old milk cauldron is heating up water for their shower, which takes place behind a screen hastily made of various panels and sheets found around the building – probably the only reason they haven’t been used as fuel yet. There’s a water trough, a pile of bricks, two carpets and some inscriptions on the wall of a nearby building they use as their prayer area. Life doesn’t seem to stop for these people despite their predicament. They are accustomed to hardship, and very determined to move forward, not back. A shower, a prayer, and gathering up near the entrance again. Those tasked to be on watch are on top of the roof and hidden by the main gatehouse, gazing at the illuminated ferries, waiting for the right chance. They whistle and motion to those below through gaping holes in the roof : Another human wave is gathering. I take my leave.
Despite the dire state the factory is in, the migrants receive some support from the local authorities, and many associated organizations and individuals. Up to 200 meals a day are distributed, running water is provided on site where possible, and more recently city cleaners have tidied up certain parts of the factory complex to make it more habitable and provide some relative comfort to its unlikely residents. It doesn’t change the fact that the abandoned factory is not much different to a weird concentration camp – its gates are wide open of course, but still, there’s nowhere to go for those inside. In a city already so blighted by decades of general hardship, poverty and chronic unemployment, one could say that its population is no less trapped than the migrants in the paper mill : Patra is a true Concentration City at all levels, and something is telling me that this is not the last time we’ll be reporting on its many darker charms !
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