istanbul is on fire

On the 25th of June for the Mashallah News Day Event in Istanbul, I made a presentation on the urban transformation process in Istanbul. Mashallah News published the presentation under the title of Istanbul is on fire, together with 3 videos from Fatih Pinar:

Istanbul is on fire

Istanbul is transforming. The city is turning global, becoming one of the nodal hubs that knit the global economy together. A recent report lists Istanbul as the 7th most visited city in the world. The same report states that “without these global cities, there would be no global economy”. Another ranks Istanbul 7th in terms of international meetings organized by international organizations. If put together, these striking figures indicate that Istanbul is rapidly becoming a global attraction point, not only for people but also for capital.

The urban transformation of Istanbul goes hand in hand with the process of “becoming global”. It’s a parallel process: the more it becomes global (for people and capital), the more it gets transformed (socially and spatially) and vice-versa. The global character of urban transformation is ideologically bounded: it’s the quest for a neo-liberal city. It’s the vehicle through which cities get divided into clearly identified functions and class-based clusters. These changes happen in a fragmented way and create injustice since the neo-liberal city caters for the needs of a limited part of the population only. Through these transformations, we see many socio-spatial spaces emerg in the city: mega-projects such as the “crazy” , gated communities, and shopping malls.

As the political process turns more urbanized, these changes get normalized. This is a quite recent phenomenon. We’re not talking about urban policies and politics per se anymore, but instead about how the broader political framework is becoming urbanized. The backbone of the latest election campaign of AKP, Turkey’s ruling party, was “branding cities with mad projects”. Here, madness was synonymous with mega and grandeur. Given the turnout of the elections, it seems that many voters buy into this sort of message.”

However, different social classes in the city don’t experience this process in the same way. The global city has winners and losers. Many Istanbul neighborhoods have gone through large transformations in recent years, leading to the demolition of houses and eviction of their inhabitants. In some cases, some residents are relocated to the outskirts of the city while others are left literally on the streets. Even though the actual number of evictions in Istanbul is quite small to this date, it will escalate if current urban renewal plans are carried out as planned. In response to reports by local organizations calling attention to further evictions, the UN-HABITAT Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) was invited to Istanbul. Their one-week mission in June 2009 was tasked with documenting ongoing and future possible evictions, assessing the exiting legal framework, and hearing the viewpoints of both those responsible for and those affected by the evictions. I was part of the mission, and building on its research, we produced a map called  to visualize this phenomenon.

Mapping the evictions

The international mapping workshop first looked at the transformation dynamics in the city. What is happening and where? We studied how urban change affects different areas in terms of the right to housing and the right of people in informal settlements to stay in their neighborhoods. Five different categories of eviction threats were identified, and in the end we came with up a picture of the whole city where threats are displayed on different scales: from potential eviction sites to areas with second waves of evictions. Neighborhoods like  for example, had already been demolished. Sulukule’s residents had been relocated to a so-called “social” housing project, a ghetto on the outskirts of the city where they couldn’t survive. So, they had to leave their new houses and eventually came back to neighboring areas of Sulukule.

This way, we visualize the cycle of eviction caused by urban transformation. The map also marks places where urban resistance is taking place. I like to call the map “Istanbul is on fire”, because it really shows the tensions and conflicts in the city. Even though the meaning of this process is changing now, authorities responsible for this mess show little signs of learning. So the evictions and demolitions still continue. What they ought to have learned, is that imposing top-down urban transformation projects creates a very strong local resistance with a potential to grow into larger opposition movements. It seems clear that the political cost of breeding and fueling this form of resistance is foolishly too expensive and carrying on the same way is stupid. We therefore see that the rhetoric of both the authorities and the capitalists is changing from “let’s get rid of the illegal settlements and invest in the global city” to “why don’t we share a small portion of the profit of land speculation with the gecekondu-dwellers.” In terms of housing rights this “strategic” shift doesn’t offer much hope to people. It seems that the rules of the game still are written by and for the interest of others.

At the same time, Istanbul is also becoming a city of billionaires. It’s now number five on the list of world cities with the highest number of dollar billionaires. Today, Istanbul is home to 36 such residents with a total combined wealth of $60 billion. There’s a connection to this growing number of wealthy inhabitants and the polarizing urbanization policies. On the list of Turkey’s 100 richest people, it’s not industrialists who constitute the majority anymore, but those in the real estate and construction businesses. Almost one third of the richest Turkish people are directly profiting from this business of “city-making”.

The billionaires who reshape Istanbul

Two names on this list are of particular interest. The first is the most famous real-estate developer in the country, Ali Ağaoğlu. One morning, Istanbul woke up to a new commercial campaign advertising for his company’s new gated community project. Ağaoğlu himself featured as the face of the . People felt bombarded by his image which was project in a very vulgar and pornographic way. And this is a serious issue, because Ayazma where the new project is located is one of several urban transformation sites from which almost ten thousand Istanbul residents, mostly Kurdish, have been evicted. While Ali Ağaoğlu promoted and developed his new project, 18 Ayazma families were still struggling for their right to housing on the very same spot.

This led me to write an article on my blog. The story shows the potential of blogs when taking the medium seriously. I claimed that what Ali Ağaoğlu did was urban whitewashing. First, he managed to make the national headlines stating that he would donate one flat from his new project to each member of the Turkish national basketball team, which was playing the World Championship finals in 2010. Second, he said that the money (one million dollars) earned (or rather put from one pocket to another) from the advertisement campaign would be used to build schools. I wrote in my article that this is bullshit. He’s actually building houses while people are suffering, knowing all the facts. After my article was published, he called me. He was quite frustrated with his name being associated with something illegitimate, with me calling him a human rights violator. We talked on the phone for almost an hour. He invited me to his office, even offered me to mediate to solve the Ayazma “problem”. But apart from sending the Ayazma families official demands, I didn’t get involved.

This made me realize that even when you’re just one blogger, your message can have an impact. It’s difficult to find someone who writes critically about people like Ali Ağaoğlu. Media obviously doesn’t want to criticize guys like him because so much money floods in through their advertisements. I was just going through today’s paper, and almost half of it is real-estate ads. In such a context, it’s us citizen journalists who must open up the space for these issues.

Another case I take very seriously is Demirören shopping mall, a new project, built illegally (the two top floors don’t have a building permit) on Istanbul’s main pedestrian street Istiklal. The man behind it is Yıldırım Demirören, another “new owner of the city”. For over a year, I was following all the developments with the gentrification of this street and the role of the mall in this process. What’s happened is that the most important public space in the city, a landmark for Istanbul’s cultural identity, and an urban conservation site has been turned into an open-air shopping mall. I know that this is an issue that the Istanbul citizens take seriously. Many people don’t want their living spaces to get demolished by these guys. Demirören, who’s also the president of Beşiktaş football team paid 170 000 euros to have Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo wave to the crowd from one of the mall’s balconies. A way to legitimize the illegitimate development, the balcony-waving act also signifies just how much these real estate giants are becoming the owners of the city.

So, there’s lots of urban activism taking place in Istanbul. People aren’t quietly accepting what’s happening. We’re writing, sharing information, discussing online. But ultimately, online activism is by no means enough to make a tangible impact. It’s very crucial to build real resistance in the streets, to somehow canalize people’s energy towards campaigns in the city’s streets and squares. The ultimate aim for me is to engage people into the already existing urban circles. In the end, this is what is real. This is where the real potential for change is.


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