Last week I rode the train for about an hour from central Istanbul to the end of the line, to Bezirganbahce, a cluster of pastel-coloured tower blocks on the fringe of the city.
I was there to do a story examining the social effects of the massive urban renewal program that the government is enacting in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey.
I was inspired in part by the film Ekumenopolis (mentioned in this previous post), and also by an interest in Istanbul’s peculiarly low crime rates.
It always surprises people who do not live here when I tell them that it is relatively safe. What impressed me deeply when I first came to Istanbul was that you can pass for miles through the metropolis and not see any of the signs of poverty and desperation so evident elsewhere in the developing world – and often the developed world too. (Istanbul has its exceptions, of course: Sultangazi, for one).
Although the quality and quantity of the comparative data is not great, what I was able to find suggests that Istanbul indeed has a lower crime rate than most European cities.
The street life makes an interesting contrast with that of London. On the one hand, the state is far more visible and pervasive. But most striking is the fact that communities appear to own their streets in a way they often do not in London.
Residents I spoke to in places such as Ayvansaray, an historic but poor neighbourhood beneath the Byzantine city walls, confirmed that there is what some described as a kind of ‘self-rule’: everyone knows each other, problems are handled in a collective way, there is trust between neighbours.
Like Sulukule, Tarlabasi, Ayazma, and other generally poor communities, people in Ayvansaray are battling eviction. Their neighbourhood will soon be redeveloped into luxury apartments. Bezirganbahce is the kind of place they might end up.
As you walk up the hill from the Halkali train station, the impression is not a bad one. Out here the air is clean and the scrubby fields stretching away create a feeling of space that is a pleasant change to the crush of the city.
Entering the housing project, we could hear the din of children playing in the local school. There’s a medical clinic too and a little row of shops: baker, greengrocer etc. The buildings are a series of widely-spaced, identikit tower blocks with landscaped walkways, verges and playgrounds.
We spoke to residents who had come from Ayazma as well as those who had moved here through choice. There were things that people liked. The Kurdish family who gave us a lavish breakfast said they could not complain about the comfort of their apartment. Others mentioned the fresh air and open space.
But no one I spoke to said they could ever imagine this place feeling like a community. Even the owner of the local bakery, a former taxi driver who was now pursuing his lifelong dream, said this place would never feel like his old neighbourhood in Bagcilar.
It was surprisingly difficult to find people to talk to. In spite of the landscaped public spaces, everyone seemed to be rushing somewhere.
When we first arrived, my translator walked up to a passerby and asked if he knew the family we had organized to meet. We told him the name and he looked at us as if we were crazy. ‘A needle in a haystack,’ he said (or the Turkish equivalent of it).
We approached one young man who had a cut on his face and his arm in a cast and asked him what life is like here. “Ask Recep Tayyip,” he replied as he walked off.
Cihan Baysal, a human rights activist and lawyer who knows the neighbourhood well, told me that when the families moved here in 2007, the Kurdish and Turkish teenagers set up rival gangs and started to fight one another. The authorities responded by giving over six tower blocks to police officers and their families.
There is little to do here for teenage kids, said Baysal and others. In Ayazma, they never had much cause to stray far from home, but here they have taken to roaming round other neighbourhoods, seeing the wealth of the city that is denied them. There is no work for the parents either, and the fathers are commuting three or four hours to find anything that pays.
Osman, the patriarch of the family who gave us breakfast, was due to leave only a few days later to take up a construction job in Northern Iraq. In Ayazma, he said, he had been able to get by in tough times by doing odd jobs: someone always had something that needed doing. Here there was nothing, and his family is financially crippled by the monthly instalments due on their new home.
Fatma, the wife of Osman, described Bezirganbahce as ‘an open air prison’. One unnervingly confident police officer who lived here with his family said that security was difficult in the neighbourhood because people ‘lived in closed boxes, no one knows what anyone else is doing’.
As we left, two young men planted themselves firmly in front of us. The elder of the two asked us for a few lira, but his body language said he wouldn’t take no for an answer. The exchange was in that uneasy halfway house between begging and mugging.
We gave them some money, but seeing I was foreign they tried to get more. It was the first time in two years in Istanbul that I had been in that kind of situation. As I automatically looked around to see if anybody else was coming, it struck me how unhealthy was the anonymity and emptiness of this place. One of the most comforting things in Istanbul is the incessant street life, the people standing at their shops, sitting in the teahouses, talking, everyone knowing everyone else.
The boys said they were from Erzincan and had come here looking for work, had been unable to find any, and were now homeless. One said he had a child back home and they were looking to get the money to return. I wasn’t sure if they really were from Erzincan.
It might be a stretch to say that a random encounter such as this is emblematic of anything much. But generally speaking, what is so depressing about the situation is that the mistakes being made by Turkey are both predictable and avoidable. Mass housing policies in which people are stuck in tower blocks far from any economic centres or opportunities have been proven to fail in European and American cities from the 1950s onwards. The evidence is in the Paris 2005 riots, or the ones in London last summer.
The future of the city as envisioned by one interviewee, Yves Cabannes, a former UN advisor on forced evictions, is of a glitzy, gentrified core ringed by ghettoes. Not many people seem to appreciate what a rare and precious thing it is that – to some degree at least – Istanbul is an exception to this familiar pattern.
The whole experience put me in mind of a passage in a book I read recently, Secret Tibet, by Fosco Maraini. The correspondence to what I’ve been discussing is not perfect, but the relationship should be clear; nor is the idea by any means original, but here it is too beautifully expressed (or rather, translated from the Italian) not to quote.
The writer spoke Tibetan and travelled around the country during the 1930s and 40s. The following passage was prompted by his reflections on the happiness he believed he saw in the people in what was at that time an essentially medieval, theocratic society:
“Happiness does not necessarily depend on social structure or system of government as our contemporaries seem to think. To me it seems to be primarily a question of equilibrium between the world by which man is surrounded and the world which he carries in his heart. We live in an age of terrifying disequilibriums and should be equally unhappy under kings, presidents, Popes or tribunes of the people, whether organized in republics or empires, soviets or theocracies. Our science offers us one picture of the universe; our traditional religion another. Physics and chemistry have advanced a thousand years ahead of the social sciences and the education of the will… Ideals and standards are in a state of continual flux; professional standards and ideals, sexual standards, class ambitions, the kind of life that people aim for at different ages – all important elements in a stable society – are subjected to constant criticism and revision; everything is changing, becoming, perpetually fluid. New equilibriums unknown to us are perhaps on the way, in which future generations may perhaps find greater peace. But we are caught up in the grinding of the gears. Some of us succeed in extricating ourselves, but the majority are crushed.”