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Battered Athens turnaround a tall order for new mayor

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Athens (AFP)

Battered by the crisis that ravaged the rest of Greece, Athens will have a new mayor on Sunday and a challenge to reverse the fallout from the country's long recession.

Across the city, the damage from the economic slowdown is still evident: abandoned or dilapidated buildings, shuttered shops, broken sidewalks, and wide pockets of drug abuse and prostitution.

Polls for the second round of Greece's local elections on Sunday see conservative New Democracy candidate Costas Bakoyannis, son of a former mayor, with a lead of over 25 points against leftist government candidate Nassos Iliopoulos.

Frontrunner Bakoyannis, whose mother Dora was Athens' first female mayor ahead of the 2004 Olympics, promises to usher in a "new era" by focusing on "the "obvious": "Safety, cleanliness, lighting."

"A mayor is not elected to concern himself with world peace. A good mayor for Athens is one... that wakes up the city in the morning and tucks it in at night," the 41-year-old candidate, a grandson of former prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis, said in a recent interview.

Among Bakoyannis' pledges is a 54.4-million-euro ($60-million) promenade connecting some of the capital's main landmarks, and an emphasis on playgrounds and cycling routes.

In addition to wiping out a quarter of the country's economic output, the 2010-2018 crisis also decimated real estate prices in Athens, as did a succession of violent anti-austerity demonstrations in the city centre.

Yiorgos Kymionis, a cloth merchant, was among the few who stood their ground while most fled the area.

"It was difficult at first... residents and business owners nearly abandoned this district outright," says Kymionis, who opened his shop at the height of the crisis in 2012.

And even now, most people come downtown to have a coffee, not to shop, he said.

- 'Notoriety' helps -

But the protests were not without some benefits.

According to outgoing deputy Athens mayor Lefteris Papagiannakis, the number of visitors more than doubled in recent years owing to a certain "notoriety" attached to the city's image.

And the fall in prices enabled investors, many of them Arab and Chinese, to move in just as the Airbnb home-sharing craze is beginning to peak.

Next to Kymionis' shop in the capital's 19th century trade district, neoclassical buildings have been restored and boutique hotels of four or five stars have appeared.

Other initiatives have helped add glimmer during the term of outgoing two-term mayor Yiorgos Kaminis.

In 2017, Athens co-hosted with the German city of Kassel the cult contemporary art show Documenta, featuring the work of over 160 international artists.

The private Stavros Niarchos foundation also recently financed an urban plan to revive the city shopping quarter with building cleanups and more pedestrian spaces.

There has also been an expansion of street art and a proliferation of socio-cultural centers -- meeting points for artists, professionals and refugees -- that arose in response to the collapse of state-funded welfare.

"Athens has been transformed in recent years," says photographer George Malekakis. "It is taking the appearance of a European city."

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