Questionable Consensus


Sulukule before it was demolished (old city walls to the left). Wikipedia Commons.

The Istanbul neighborhood of Sulukule before it was demolished (old city walls to the left). Wikipedia Commons.

Guest writer Paul Benjamin Osterlund, graduate student of Turkish Studies with a specialization in Urban Studies at Sabanci University, details the context of urban development behind recent protests in Turkey.

I suggest to you the idea that the city will only be rethought and reconstructed on its current ruins when we have properly understood that the city is the deployment of time, and that it is this time, …of those who are its inhabitants, it is for them that we have to finally organize in a human manner.

Henri Lebebvre, 1967

Protests over a park in the heart of Istanbul are the culmination of a series of non-consensual urban initiatives that have taken place in the past decade under AKP leadership. They reflect the anger and frustration of Istanbullites, who want more public debate on major urban projects. Prime Minister Erdoğan himself has been the executor of many of these projects, which are beset by controversy. The current contestation over Gezi Park is in response to his decision to recreate a 19th century Ottoman military barracks, that was demolished in the 1940s and later landscaped as a park. Erdoğan proposed a gallery of shops and residences within these “barracks,” but later, in a conciliatory gesture, Istanbul governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu stated that a museum could be built within the resurrected barracks. The main source of public frustration, however, stems from the top-down fashion by which the Prime Minister introduced the project –  decree rather than consensus – while polls earlier this year indicate that a majority does not support such a project.

While in office, Erdoğan has unveiled a series of colossally ambitious urban projects – eye-popping in size, cost, and potentially disastrous consequences. For example, he intends to build a third bridge across the Bosphorus, on the north end of the strait near the Black Sea, which critics say will inflict irreversible damage upon the forests of the area and exacerbate the city’s severe traffic problem. Naming the bridge after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I opens wounds as the Sultan was notorious for the persecution of Alevis, who today make up 15% of Turkey’s population. In 1995 while serving as Istanbul’s mayor, Erdoğan previously stated that a third bridge would be disastrous for the city. His effort to initiate the project now is likely motivated by profit. A third airport is currently in the works, also to be built in the north end of the city near the Black Sea, despite a former executive from THY, Turkey’s largest airline, asserting its construction as unnecessary. Another plan, Erdoğan himself has dubbed the “crazy project,” involves the digging of a second canal on the European side of the city, effectively converting it into an island.

Lucrative development zones ultimately displace poor and marginalized residents. The passage of Law No. 5366 in 2005 (listed on a government website as the “Law on Renovating, Conserving and Actively Using Dilapidated Historical and Cultural Immovable Assets”) allegedly facilitates the renovation of run-down zones designated to be culturally and historically significant. The law enables municipalities to redevelop these areas as they see fit, which in practice has led to the displacement of lower-income Istanbullites from their neighborhoods as properties are legally expropriated from owners who not reach an agreement with the authorities.

Sulukule and Tarlabaşı are the two most prominent cases that fall under the umbrella of that Law. Sulukule, an age-old Roma neighborhood, was demolished entirely as of 2009. The quarter, once referred to by Erdoğan as a “monstrosity,” was home to modest, one-story homes and had been populated by the Roma for centuries. Some residents were offered apartments in Taşoluk, a district on the fringes of the city, although the majority of the Roma who moved there were unable to stay, citing high rents, distance, and cultural incompatibility of the area. In the meantime, Sulukule is being replaced with gaudy Ottoman-style luxury apartment buildings, casting an imposing presence, a symbol of the political and financial elite’s effort to have it their way regardless of the social consequences.

Poster covering the demolition zone in Tarlabaşı. Photo by Paul Benjamin Osterlund.

Promotonal poster covering the demolition zone in Tarlabaşı. Photo by Paul Benjamin Osterlund.

Tarlabaşı, a formerly Greek and Armenian neighborhood located in the heart of Beyoğlu is also being drastically redeveloped under the umbrella of Law No. 5366. The area’s former population was forced out of the city through a series of anti-minority policies and events that occurred throughout the 20th century, which included riots in September 1955 where armed mobs attacked Greek, Armenian, and Jewish people, businesses, and residences throughout Istanbul. The area has become home to a heterogenous population of Kurds, Roma, African migrants, and transgendered people. Most Istanbullites associate the neighborhood with crime and violence. Media reports frequently refer to the area as a slum. Having lived in the area and volunteered at the Tarlabaşı Community Center for months, I experienced nothing but a lively and diverse quarter, complete with one of the best open-air Sunday markets in the city. To declare that the crime and poverty in Tarlabaşı are the defining characteristics of the neighborhood is wrong.

Nevertheless, a section of Tarlabaşı recently experienced the demolition of several hundred buildings, and will be re-conceived as a posh enclave with residences, offices, and cafes, whose rising prices threaten to force out its existing residents. The demolitions, which as of this writing have not been followed by new construction, give the appearance of a warzone. Garbage piles up in partially gutted buildings while in contrast giant posters depict the future Tarlabaşı, replete with fancy new buildings, expensive cars, and light-skinned, sharply dressed professionals scuttling about in the midst of it all. Going where?

Demirören Mall: before and after images: "Deveaux Apartments 1890, before the fire" and "Demirören Istiklal 2011: Deveaux lives on with all its glory." Photo by Paul Benjamin Osterlund.

Promotional poster of Demirören Mall: before and after images: “Deveaux Apartments 1890, before the fire” and “Demirören Istiklal 2011: Deveaux lives on with all its glory.” Photo by Paul Benjamin Osterlund.

Malls are being constructed at a dizzying rate: Istanbul is presently home to over 100 of them. Demirören Mall opened in 2011 in the Beyoğlu district on Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s busiest street, a pedestrian-only affair, which empties into Taksim Square. The mall’s facade is a glitzy remodeling of the late 19th century-built Devreaux apartment building’s original character. Construction of the mall caused severe damage to its neighbor, the Hüseyin Ağa Mosque, built in 1596. The Demirören holding company announced they would facilitate the mosque’s renovation and for two years the mosque was encircled in scaffolding and closed to the public. Last month, however, Demirören said that it would no longer continue to fund the renovation and work has come to a halt.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Demirören Mall, the building known as the Cercle d’Orient, also built in the late 19th century, was also the subject of controversy. Inci Pastanesi was an iconic profiterole shop that opened in the 1940s and is beloved by Istanbullites. The last operating business in the Cercle d’Orient, its owners were evicted from their space late last year. Walking by as the shop was stripped of its counter, I heard numerous onlookers, especially the elderly, murmur wistfully “it can’t be.” Emek Cinema, another Istanbul institution and Turkey’s oldest movie theatre, opened in 1924 and closed its doors in 2010. Then, as now in Taksim Square, protests over the theatre’s demolition were met with tear gas and pressurized water sprayed by riot police. The theatre, also located in the Cercle d’Orient building, was demolished in April of this year. In its place will be a shopping mall.

The election consensus that the Prime Minister and his associates in the government draw upon no longer bears up among the population, either in conversation or action in the street. Their decisions have profound and limitless consequences for the social fabric, architectural character, and environmental state of the city. Many critics of Erdoğan’s urban crusade claim he is imposing a nostalgia-rooted, neo-Ottoman vision of the city, which is certainly reflected by several of the examples discussed here. The seemingly endless accumulation of consumption spaces and other unnecessary frills in conjunction with the displacement of the urban poor and the encroachment upon public space threaten to render one of the world’s most beautiful and historically-rich cities unlivable. And by whose mandate? The relationship between a successful election campaign and hospitable and communal urban planning seem to have little bearing on the diversity of opinion and needs within a city of 15 million.

Paul Benjamin Osterlund’s companion piece “Everything Was a Cloud of Dust and Gas” can be read on Shifting Conversations.

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