#OccupyGezi: Setting Urban Enclosures on Fire


Photo by Yaşar Adnan Adanalı – Tarlabaşı’s fences after the fire

The AKP government came to power in 2002 in the aftermath of one of Turkey’s worst financial crises. Since then the government, has made urban and rural interventions at a grand scale to resolve the country’s capital surplus absorption problem. Today, after more than a decade, Turkish economic growth is heavily dependent upon the construction sector. Construction policies target both rural and urban areas, transform the rural landscape with thousands of small and large-scale dam projects and the urban landscape with mega urban investments, urban renewal projects, the construction of gated communities and the creation of a shopping mall frenzy.

Urban enclosures: A wild process

In the last 10 years, Istanbul , has rapidly become a mega construction site where around 30% of the national GDP is produced. The city is turning global and  becoming one of the nodal hubs that knit the global economy together. Today cranes are competing with minarets and construction fences have become an unavoidable scene in the urban landscape. Together with the construction boom, the city is also going through a wild process of the creation of urban enclosures.

Urban (common) land is fenced by ‘the urban transformation lobby’ via a public-private partnership mechanism and it is entitled to a few privileged owners and users. The process paves the way to privatization / commercialisation of public spaces such as the Gezi Park and forces the poorer communities out of their neighbourhoods located in various parts of the inner city such as Tarlabaşı. Despite a ‘thriving’ economy and ‘increasing’ self-confidence, the dispossession of the urban poor, the loss of public spaces and the endangering of urban ecology are unavoidable realities and reflections of an emerging universal model of capitalism. That is, an authoritarian developmental state ‘liberating’ urban land in order to invest in neoliberalizing spaces whilst ‘restraining’ its urban citizens.

The boundary of ‘possibility’

In a recent piece, I referred to the wild process of the creation of urban enclosures in Istanbul and compared it with the urban discourses and the intensity of the urban political debate with New York. I am thinking that  ’the scale of urban transformation in Istanbul could only be paralleled by similar madness, such as proposing to build a new city right on Central Park[2].’  Few months later, the government’s proposal to build a new shopping mall on the area where the Gezi Park now stands, which is unfortunately the only remaining green space at the city centre, triggered a revolutionary moment in Istanbul. The resistance rapidly moved beyond the city and is now being articulated in the form of intertwined social, political, economic demands in the country which definitely have global echoes.

Albeit utterly surprising, these developments created a sense of  ‘a dream coming  through!’ for those of us who keep a close eye on urban transformation processes and the struggles of urban social movements in Istanbul. Undoubtedly, the Occupy Gezi movement rapidly moved beyond its initial triggering urban ecological factor (i.e. stopping privatization and the demolition of a green public space). Yet ‘the original sin’ that sparked the revolt (i.e. the mall project, the way in which its decision were made by the Prime Minister himself alone, and the very fact that this decision was within the boundary of ‘possibility’) helps us to understand the rapid expansion of the movement’s demands.

Enclosed Tarlabaşı

Tarlabaşı is located within the Beyoğlu District of Istanbul, only a few hundred metres down from the Gezi Park and the Taksim Square. Today, Tarlabaşı is in the process of radical urban transformation during which substantial parts of the neighborhood became a ghost town as they are sealed with construction fences. When we look at its history, we see that from the mid-19th century onwards Tarlabaşı has developed rapidly into one of Ottoman Empire’s most important non-Muslim quarters. At its close vicinity, the “La Grande Rue de Pera” (Istiklal High Street) had enjoyed a rising popularity since the 1850s and  represented the most “western” face of the Empire in terms of its architecture, demography but also with the lifestyle it inhabited. Paul Imbert records that in the year 1869 there were 277 Muslim, 91 Armenian Gregorian, 28 Armenian Catholic, 85 Greek, 65 Latin Catholic, 29 Jewish, 40 Bulgarian and 7 Protestant students going to the Galatasaray High School, which stands in 5 minutes walking distance to Tarlabaşı.[3]

Following the systematic assaults on the non-Muslim communities of Istanbul through out the Republican era, most of these city quarters had experienced the exodus of their initial owners. Since 1960s, Tarlabaşı and its derelict houses have welcome the deprived newcomers of the city, in other words, Istanbul’s ‘others’: Kurds, Gypsies, Assyrians, African migrants, transsexuals, and others at the margins of extra-legality. This historical inner-city neighbourhood has become a puzzling, informal and heterogeneous part of Istanbul in the last 40 years.

Between 1986 and 1988, over 350 listed buildings were destroyed to make room for a much disputed six-lanes highway. The highway cut off the area from the glittering Istiklal High Street and its surrounding gentrified neighbourhoods. Since then the ‘nostalgic’ Tarlabaşı area has remained as a pocket of urban poverty as its deprivation continued to this date due to lack of good social policies. Yet until the recent drive for ‘enclosures’, urban deprivation had not resulted in the forced eviction of its poor inhabitants from the city centre.

With the AKP’s rediscovery of the profit-making potential of urban land and following the introduction of a specific legal framework and institutional arrangements, Tarlabaşı found itself at the heart of a rent-seeking real-estate speculation. In 2005, a new law entitled, the Urban Regeneration Law – 5366 was ratified in order to facilitate the urban renewal of historical areas which formerly were under the protection of the urban conservation regulations. With this Law, forced expropriation was introduced as a measure against oppositions to renewal projects. Central government’s Mass Housing Authority (MHA, TOKİ in Turkish) was reorganized with enhanced capacity, power and new mandate to speed up the renewal process not only in the historic centres but also in informal areas or on any available state owned land. Besides executing urban renewal projects, this real-estate titan constructed more than half million housing units for various income groups in less than a decade. Rows of concrete high-rise housing blocks for the poor were constructed at the urban periphery. These blocks are highly criticized for rapidly acquiring a  ‘ghetto-like’ character.

In 2006, the Council of Ministers in Ankara designated 20.000 square metres of Tarlabaşı, consisting of 9 blocks and 278 plots, as an urban renewal area, giving the Beyoğlu Municipality unprecedented advantage over its local community. The Municipality made a partnership with GAP Construction, the affiliated company of giant Çalık Holding active in various sectors including the media. The CEO of Çalık is Berat Albayrak, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Some of Turkey’s best architects, such as the Aga-Khan Award Winner Han Tümertekin were invited to re-design the historical neighbourhood. As part of the Project, many of the total of 278 buildings has already been bulldozed and sledgehammered, 210 of them were listed buildings. When completed, this will be a mixed-use, super high-end real-estate project that will produce residential, commercial, tourism and office areas.

Setting the fire

The Mayor of Beyoğlu, Ahmet Misbah Demircan excitedly explains his gentrification projects: ‘‘We initiated a drive at and around Istiklal Street. The transformation at Tarlabaşı is obvious. Everyone will want to renew themselves seeing our example. Everyone will put themselves in order. We set the fire, initiated the movement, now the movement will go all the way to the end. The fire of transformation will trickle down to all streets[4].’’ As the Mayor himself stated, the transformation of Tarlabaşı could not be more obvious. This was a textbook example of a gentrification project, constructing new wealthy spaces on top of a poor but lively neighbourhood. The transformed spaces are renewed / executed without respect to their cultural, historical contexts or the existing spatial habits and relationships of their inhabitants. The project treats Tarlabaşı as an abstract, empty plate (a tabula rasa) and plans, designs and reconstructs the neighbourhood from scratch.

The rent gap at Tarlabaşı is mind-blowing: The investment cost is estimated to be around 250 million dollars, whereas the increased value after the project is estimated to be more than 1 billion dollars. The public-private-partnership, holding the bargaining power in its hand, will capture all of this estimated profit. The cost will be inflicted on the residents who are made homeless; relocated to TOKI ghettos 40 km away from the city centre; or for those who intend to stay at the new project, in shrinking homes with dead loans. On July 2011, Amnesty International warned the Turkish authorities to ‘‘halt a series of heavy-handed forced evictions which have already resulted in a number of vulnerable families… effectively being made homeless[5].’’

Healing the poisoned princess

Photo by Yaşar Adnan Adanalı – ‘‘Tarlabaşı is renewing’’

Every ambitious project, that operates through mechanisms of eviction and dispossession, and causes human suffering requires legitimization. In the case of Tarlabaşı, first, the deprived people were blamed for their poverty. Referring to their various social backgrounds and active involvement in informal economy, the community was labeled ‘criminals’. The official discourse was ‘healing the poisoned princess’. After the urban renewal project the princess (the space), will be cured from the poison (the poor). This discourse was ‘honestly’ and openly represented by the giant construction fences covering the neighbourhood depicting the future: ‘Clean’, ‘happy’, ‘Europeanized’, gentrified Tarlabaşı. These images were the self-evident manifestation of the project and showed how it totally excluded and disregarded the neighbourhood’s existing population.

With the Occupy Gezi movement, ‘the fire of transformation’ indeed trickled down to all Istanbul streets. The protestors torched the shameless fences of gentrification soon after they reclaimed the area from the riot police. One of the burnt down fences was picturing the Mayor and the PM posed happily next to a slogan: ‘New Tarlabaşı is the Future!’ The fire of transformation set off another fire in Istanbul, the fire of rage, resistance and hope. Yet this new kind of fire is mainly a peaceful, symbolic one. Even though the Prime Minister has labeled the Gezi Protestors as ‘looters’ (Çapulcu in Turkish), vandalism was a rare exception in and around the Gezi Park. People coexisted peacefully in solidarity for almost two weeks without police presence, at the centre of Istanbul where three million people pass by a single day. The direct target of the protestors were limited to Tarlabaşı’s fences, together with the bulldozers (parked outside Gezi waiting to demolish it), police cars (the symbol of disproportional violence used against the protestors), broadcast vehicles of news channels (who did their best to verify the famous motto, ‘revolution will not be televised’) and few big businesses (who control the media and finance the urban projects).

”We’ll lay down our lives for democratic demands”

Turkish media gave a very bad trial through out the Gezi resistance. During the climax of the events on June 2, Turkish news channel CNN Turk aired a penguin documentary. On June 7, seven newspapers carried the same headline backing Erdogan: “We’ll lay down our lives for democratic demands”.  On June 14, The BBC announced it has suspended its partnership with Turkey’s NTV channel after it pulled a programme on press freedom and the anti-government protests. On June 16, after Gezi Park was violently raided by riot police using disproportionate force and emptied out from protestors, the newspaper Sabah (owned by the Çalık Holding) captioned ‘‘Good morning Gezi’’. Its subheading stated ‘‘without harming anyone, police evicted the Park and re-opened for the use of public.’’ These were undoubtedly some of the most disgraceful moments for press freedom in Turkey, being embroidered to the nation’s history. Considering not only the Government’s oppression on but also the intimate and degraded relationship of the media with politicians and real-estate sector, even the most ‘obvious’ fire might become invisible. Yet, these actors could be reduced to ash first, if insist on pretending not to see the fire in Istanbul.

[1] The German translation of this article was published at Le Monde Diplomatique (Germany) on July 2013

[2] IDEAS CITY: Istanbul or “How to obtain a building permit for Central Park?”, by Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, http://www.newmuseum.org/blog/view/ideas-city-istanbul-or-how-to-obtain-a-building-permit-for-central-park

[3] Kaptan, Özdemir (1989) Beyoğlu. İletişim. Page 125.

[4] Hürriyet Newspaper (29.04.2012)

[5] Amnesty International (18.07.2011) https://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/turkey-urged-halt-heavy-handed-evictions-istanbul-2011-07-18

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