August 19, 2014
The investigation of issues which concern cultural adaptation, integration and exchange in the places where the practices of indigenous populations meet those of immigrants, proves to be a powerful tool not only for the reading of the way in which cultural practice transforms but for how the intersection of class, gender, race, religion segregation systems are renegotiated and lead to new relations and new territories. In the following article, I will attempt to give a few examples of the ways in which cultural practices were employed whether as a means of assimilation or as a means of spatial appropriation by immigrants who arrived in the city of Thessaloniki since the ‘90s.
In Greece, the politics which was followed after the emergence of the newly founded Greek state in the 19th century, aimed systematically at the shaping of a culturally homogeneous society, with language and religion being two pivotal points. In this context, for the inhabitants of greek territory, language and orthodox religion have for long been the means of confirmation of the continuity of the greek nation through the centuries, while the dominant perception is that ‘’greekness’’ is ‘’inherited’’ and cannot be attained.  Similarly, ‘’greekness’’ is presented as deeply territorialized for centuries, unchanged and unspoiled by foreign cultural, economic, and political invasions.
Against this articulation of the place and of the sense –or right- of belonging to it, the massive immigration towards Greece, which initiated during the ‘90s, has been perhaps the most important challenging of this homogeneity and cultural hegemony that had been established throughout the greek cities. The migratory groups, in particular those from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, found themselves claiming their everyday existence in spaces where the boundaries of appropriation for the so-called ‘’strangers’’ are, or are presented as, particularly rigid, both through social and police surveillance.
It must be noted, before proceeding to any examples, that the dynamics which developed-and continue to do so- in the field of the socioeconomic integration and cultural exchange that these groups evoked, ‘’are not homogeneously spread all over the country; they take particular forms in specific regions and localities’’. However, the studies of the last decades which focus on the issue of cultural adaptation of the new inhabitants of the greek cities, indicate a series of practices which were adopted by them, throughout their struggle for integration and a place in local societies.
One of the main arguments involved in the construction of the identification imposed on the newcomers – particularly promoted by the mass media and more implicitly by the official migratory policies- was their descent from regimes that were characterized as conservative, repressive and in general ‘’backward’’, while Greece- as a western society- was presented as progressive and democratic. In this context of hegemonic representations, elements of everyday greek culture such as the consumerist ideals of the 90s -including owning a car, and going on summer vacation- and the major involvement of orthodox religion in social relations, became factors that were quickly recognized by the newcomers as key for their social integration and acceptance, or at least for the tolerance of the local communities.  At the same time, cultural representations which concern the formation and establishment of gender difference in greek society, had a considerable impact in the means of adaptation of the immigrants. The work of women immigrants itself, the majority of which took up jobs in the field of care work, brought them in direct contact with the ‘’indigenous’’ domestic space, a determinant for the sociability of the greek family, a space where ‘’the indigenous categories of domesticity constitute key symbols of the greek cultural reality’’.  This access through care and household work and the contact mainly with the middle and upper stratas, amplified the potential of better and quicker language learning for women immigrants, while at the same time it gave them access to everyday habits and practices from interior decorations and cooking to gender roles between couples.  Combined with the need for change in the family hierarchies for practical reasons –i.e. longer working hours for women-, this led, at least partially, to the adoption of more liberating practices and roles in the family for women, in contrast with their previous position in the countries of origin. 
On the other hand, there are practices which transcend the dominant greek culture; the representations and relations in the realm of public space, indicate another mode of appropriation.The exploration of this field, comes to add elements to the mapping of thoseaspects of trans-national/cultural encounters and their spatial expressions.
Before and throughout the years of the first migratory waves towards Greece, the condition of public space of cities had been continuously deteriorating. The indigenous populations had almost completely abandoned the use of public space, which was left empty, and was occupied only occasionally by children, teenagers or the elderly. Practices which involved social interaction and activity in these spaces, had been essentially obliterated, leaving back a socially ‘’dead’’ space. This discontinuity in the fabric of sociospatial relations constituted an open ground in the margin of everyday life, which the migratory groups came to overtake and organize in completely different ways.  These groups as primarily affected by different modes of exclusion and marginalization, are in emergent need of a place where they can built a new cultural and social identity. Through this practice of appropriation, the immigrants compensate for the symbolic deficit, they establish a spatialized cultural identity, they ‘’belong’’, they inscribe points in the cognitive map of the city, they orientate .Thus, the ‘’empty’’ urban public space is reactivated and its meaning redefined as a place where wider social relations and actions which cover a wide spectrum of needs are realized. Specifically for the case of the city of Thessaloniki, the job piazzas of Harilaou, Voulgari and OSE as well as the constant presence of immigrants in Dikastirion square or the market streets in Vardari for leisure and social interaction, are testimonials of these practices and new spatialities. The location of these places is linked to factors such as proximity to areas where more immigrants live, or proximity to businesses where these groups can find newspapers from their countries, send remittances, make phone calls, or book their next journey home, creating points of exchange of valuable information and constructing spaces where the invisible networks between them find their spatial expression. Despite the range of examples that could be givenvarying according to the region, the nationality or ethnicity of the migratory groups, their gender, their type of work etc., neverthelessall these practices together constitue a new urban reality. The migratory groups, being in a condition of social, economic, cultural and spatial displacement, attempt to forge their own new relation to the cities they settle in. Whether through the ‘’voids’’ or ‘’cracks’’ of the existing spaces or through the appropriation of dominant practices they manage to claim their place in the city, emphasizing the disjunction between place and culture as this is posed by nationalist perceptions of this relation . Additionally, their active participation in the transformation of space and the new dynamics that develop, contradict and strongly challenge any notion of urban space as a static and fixed entity, or as a pre-set stage for the infinite reenactment of an unchanging culture.
The overview of practices mentioned in this article covers only a fraction of those employed by immigrants and don’t always entail attributes of contestationof hegemonic roles and dominant structures. A more thorough look can reveal elements which evoke questions of assimilation to dominant norms, repressive power relations, and exclusionary practices. However, as global migration results in the intermingling and cohabitation of people from different physical and cultural settings  the study of the spatial outcomes of these new encounters can provide mappingsof the interweaving and interacting of culture, urban space and power structures and hence of the emergent modes of being and belonging in the city. In this context, it has to be made clear that the questions of migration and culture cannot be answered independently of the dynamics which impose social inequality and exclusion . But the perception of migratory groups as agents who manage to actively shape and hence transform their new environments along with an extensive investigation of the new forces at work, points to a directionof a deeper understanding and potential challenging of the ways in which the urban setting is (trans)formed.
FOTEINI MAMALI is an architect and PhD candidate in the Department of Architecture in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, currently researching emerging spatialities of gender and migration in the city of Thessaloniki.
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