Jul 01 2018

Urban policy shaping Erdoğan’s 'New Turkey' - analysis

As İstanbul’s famous Istiklal Street, at the heart of Turkey’s 2013 Gezi Park protests, becomes unrecognizable following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to create a ‘new Turkey’ from therein, locals are wondering just who the “new Turkey” benefits, wrote Brennan Cusack, contributor to Forbes magazine.

Environmentalists staged demonstrations and set up tents in Gezi Park in May, 2013 to protect one of the last green areas in the city centre from a development project that aimed to construct a shopping mall in its place. Harsh police intervention against protesters turned the demonstration into a nation-wide affair against government policies, resulting in the deaths and injuries of protesters, but failed to elicit broader political change.

‘’Istiklal  tells a story of a decade of successful government initiatives meant to transform the district from a center of culture to one of commerce,’’ Cusack pointed out while recalling the history of the Beyoğlu district, which rose to prominence as the “Grande Rue de Péra” in the 1850s, and became the central artery in Istanbul’s heart of culture by the turn of the century.

A former home to European expats and non-muslim Ottomans such as Greeks, Armenians and Jews, Beyoğlu saw an exodus of minorities  in the 1950s when riot crowds targeted Greek businesses.

Changes to the area known as the heart of İstanbul were instigated by a new development plan drawn up for Istanbul in 2009, Cusack said, noting that they envisioned the concert halls, movie theaters and other cultural spaces for the public to gather could be transformed into more profitable ventures such as hotels and shopping malls.

By time it was 2011, Istiklal's “Istanbul Bookstore” was turned into a MANGO clothing store and dozens of other old structures housed stores like Turkcell, H&M and Starbucks.

Following the Gezi park protests, a law was passed to allow landlords in Beyoğlu the power to evict tenants of over 10 years with the oldest shop on Istiklal, Kelebek Corset Shop - Owned by Jewish Turks who had survived the ethnic pogrom in the 50s - closing its doors in 2015.

‘’The ‘new Turkey’ is beginning to look like every other mall in Istanbul. “It doesn’t matter which shopping mall you walk into, it’s the same 10 to 20 shops there,” Cusack quotes Akif Burat Atlar, the secretary for the Istanbul Branch of the Chamber of City Planners, as saying. “Is it necessary? There must be some principles to protect what you have as values.”

‘’In the year leading up to President Erdogan’s reelection in June 2018, more of the twinkle lights that used to hang across Istiklal have been replaced by glowing Turkcell signs and urban projects have moved up the avenue to reach Taksim Square. A mosque that has been debated for decades is finally been resurrected across from Gezi Park, representing a break from the secular vision of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In addition, the Ataturk Cultural Center on the square has been demolished, and is being rebuilt anew under the government’s direction,’’ Cusack wrote.