THE DUSK OF OUR OLD CITY
We tend to think of the fire of 1917 as the key turning point in the recent history of Thessaloniki. In one respect this is true: combined with the change of rule in 1912 and the advent of the refugee and exchange populations in 1922-23, the fire triggered the redesign of the city’s urban fabric. The central political decision of the Liberals’ government under Eleftherios Venizelos involved three factors in the New Plan: the discipline of urban planning which had just emerged in Europe; the contemporary investment capital which exploited the new, valuable and upgraded land; and hellenisation, which in the minds of the inhabitants (not just the Greek ones) was synonymous with progress and modernisation in infrastructure, the economy, commerce, education, bureaucracy and social structures. At the time the Greeks were seen as a force of transparency and efficiency against a declined and corrupt Ottoman state machine.
Yet it is wrong to believe that contemporary Thessaloniki was born with the advent of the Greek State or with the Hébrard plan. The city had its own track record of modernisation in the context of the Ottoman tanzimat reforms, with networks, infrastructures and public and private buildings which gradually changed its aspect as well as its essence, starting with the demolition of the waterfront walls in 1870. The fact alone of the city’s railway connection Europe thirty years before the rest of Greece was linked to the Oriental Railways and came out of its Balkan isolation would be enough to corroborate its special character. In its transition from a confined, walled-in medieval city to a cosmopolitan hub open to trade and the sea, Thessaloniki followed a brief trajectory of brilliant expectations before ending up, after WWII, as a single-nationality, monochromatic and undifferentiated provincial city.
During this time of transition it never stopped changing, burning down and being rebuilt upon the new European standards. The major fire of 1890 —eventually overshadowed by the even greater disaster of 1917— was dealt with in a similar way to the subsequent event: a new plan by the municipal authorities, a rationalised and regularised layout, prohibition of any construction until the plan was complete, relocation of the former inhabitants to new neighbourhoods away from their former downtown residences, upgrading of the formerly decrepit region into a “rich house” zone. A key difference, of course, was the total reallocation of land in 1917 as opposed to a simply neater layout in 1890.
So what was this Thessaloniki that is no more? In fact, what we mourn today is the loss of two cities whose dates and boundaries are frequently confused: the short-lived city of the Belle Époque which succumbed to the fire in 1917, and the city of Hébrard which vanished under the antiparohi redevelopment after 1950. Should we also be talking of a third one—the medieval Ottoman city before the tanzimat? Some would even lament the loss of Thessaloniki as it was in 1430...
A city never changes overnight and the sequence of events is not always clear: life goes on even through destruction. Although the fire destroyed two thirds of the city centre, the rest of the historical centre continued to exist unchanged for decades—particularly the eastern side: Rotunda, Hippodrome, Ethnikis Amynis, Upper Town. Some of the burnt buildings were hastily repaired and reused after the fire, such as Crystal in Eleftherias Square and Alliance in the new Aristotelous Square. Some were reworked and extended beyond recognition, such as the Splendid Hotel which was renamed as Mediterranée before it was subsequently torn down after the earthquake of 1978.
And, of course, Thessaloniki was not just the centre. In the precinct of Exoches, most of the pre-1917 buildings never experienced the “Hébrard phase”: they were replaced directly by apartment blocks after 1950. The Upper Town, similarly, was not redeveloped until after 1970, and the depletion of the original stock of buildings continues to this day on the pretext of a new, artificial traditionality.
Thessaloniki changed after the fire, but also remained the same. Its urban grid was redesigned from scratch, but a similar thing had taken place in the area that was burned in 1890. Its architecture, despite the compulsory neo-Byzantine facades of the New Plan around Aristotelous Square, did not change much. The same pre-1917 eclecticism continued apace, now enriched with Art Nouveau and Art Deco, for another twenty years, and modernism also appeared after 1930. The road network was modernised, straightened out, widened, enriched with diagonal thoroughfares and ronds points, but still proved insufficient in the long run: one hundred years ago, no planner in their right mind could imagine the subsequent explosion in automobile use. The population changed drastically, but not only due to the fire: the war refugees (Macedonian Struggle, Balkan Wars, Great War), the strong—if brief—presence of the 650,000-strong Armée d'Orient and their abrupt departure in 1918, the evacuation of Muslims and the arrival of the refugees from the population exchange, the tragic annihilation of Jews in 1943—all these would alter the city’s demographic makeup within a single generation’s time. Thessaloniki’s population goes from 152,000 in 1912 to 280,000 in 1940 and 800,000 today, while with the new neighbourhoods its area grows to 2,000 hectares.
Of course, it is another city: after the droves and convoys of misery and the population exchanges, Thessaloniki changes its aspect and forms new mentalities, new social strata, a new national conscience and a new Greek vision, firmly focused on the West after the loss of the Orient. After the first years of hope mixed with awkward wavering about the future of the city, the fire of 1917 and the victory in the Great War sealed forever the destiny of Thessaloniki as a new, modern city; a Greek city now. The cosmopolitan lady of the Belle Époque would remain just a memory amidst the triumph of the model of post-war Greek development, only surviving in the soppy nostalgia of newcomers “for all those we allowed to be lost”. The use of the first person plural (“we”) reflects how devised memory is used in the effort to appropriate a city in which few of us have long family roots, just as the expression “OUR Thessaloniki” betrays the unspoken anguish for a city which never belonged to us in full but had to be had at all costs.