Even as Istanbul residents celebrated the reopening of Gezi Park, the small green space in the center of this city that sparked anti-government protests throughout Turkey last month, another demolition and another demonstration were busy getting underway. This time, gardens inside Istanbul’s old city walls that date back to the 6th century are the target. But will Gezi Park provide a lesson to shape both officials’ and protesters’ response?
After being closed by authorities for weeks, the park, fresh with new flowers, was briefly reopened to the public on July 8. An Istanbul court ruled in June that a government-proposed renovation of Gezi did not serve the public good, though an appeal is expected.
But the park did not stay open for long. After three hours, police shut it down again ahead of an evening demonstration by the Taksim Solidarity Platform, the umbrella protest group that formerly occupied the park.
Hundreds of anti-government protesters tried to reach the site and adjoining Taksim Square, but were foiled by riot police who blocked Taksim off from all sides and used tear gas to scatter protesters into side streets.
Ordinary citizens trying to walk home from work were dispersed along with them. Often frazzled, they consulted among each other, trying to find routes home that avoided Taksim and the police. At least one elderly lady was nearly in tears as she was helped into a taxi.
But neither the protesters nor the police, who feel they have the government’s backing, appear willing to give up, making tear gas and panic the new normal for this Istanbul neighborhood.
That resolution already appears to be having some effect on a far smaller, though no less determined, group. On the morning of July 8, about 50 protesters gathered to defend the Yedikule gardens, a sprawling area of vegetable plots alongside the city’s Byzantine-era walls, which are a UNESCO-protected site. The local Fatih Municipality, which owns the gardens, plans to build a park over at least four of the approximately ten plots inside the walls. The extent of the project, which was approved on July 5, is not clear.
Critics claim that the gardens’ demolition, coming on the heels of the Gezi Park protests, are another example of the primacy of government construction schemes over all other considerations.
“When you do something like this, it’s like cutting [down] the trees in Gezi Park. It’s the same concept,” said Alessandra Ricci, an Italian archeologist who studied the site and criticized UNESCO for not speaking out about the gardens’ destruction. “The authorities are destroying the city’s cultural heritage.”
“Overall, the municipality are project-oriented people, but they don’t really care about what is lost,” agreed Gunhan Borekci, an assistant professor of history at Istanbul’s Sehir University who attended the Yedikule demonstration. At least one garden was already partially covered in dirt.
The construction sector is a key part of Turkey’s economic growth and also helps expand its regional influence. Turkish construction companies operate in some 100 countries worldwide, building everything from white-marble buildings in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, to airports in multiple Balkan capitals.
At home, Istanbul, the country’s most famous city, is witnessing the bulk of the construction.
Bahçe?ehir University political scientist Cengiz Aktar believes that the Turkish government has not yet been able to strike the right balance between new construction, renovation and preserving the city’s past.
Instead, emphasis is given to short-term profits, Acktar charged. “There is not a city plan. There is no urban planning. Every single space that exists is good for building [in the eyes of the government],” he said. “It’s an appetite for quick money.”
However, at the same time, policymakers believe they are making Istanbul a better place, Aktar said. “They have a very particular understanding of urban modernity. They are imitating what was done probably 100 years ago in the United States . . . This is an understanding which is completely outdated.”
Mustafa Demir, the mayor of Fatih municipality, gave the impression of an official who truly believed in his renovation project when he met those protesting the destruction of the Yedikule gardens. Amidst an argument among local residents over the project, he arrived with an entourage holding placards that show an artificial river and green spaces in place of the gardens.
Residents that supported the renovation believe the makeover will increase security and property valuations in the impoverished neighborhood. Dissenters fear for their incomes, which come from selling vegetables raised in the gardens. When an argument and small scuffle broke out, the protesters walked off.
The crowd gradually dissipated as an old municipality bus full of police drove through a dusty lot toward the garden. One resident repeated the name of the area several times, and then shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of futility.
Caroline Finkel, an Istanbul-based Ottoman-historian, said that Byzantine records showed the gardens dated back to the 6th century and should be preserved not only for their historic value, but also because they provide local livelihoods.
“[The municipality] is throwing people off their land in a very cruel way without providing for them…” she fumed. At least one garden tenant already has paid rent for the year.
Whether or not the municipality will consider compensation for affected residents is not known. Representatives of Fatih Municipality could not be reached for comment.
Such projects have been underway for years, political scientist Aktar noted, but the Gezi Park movement has changed how the public perceives these “gentrification” initiatives.
“The awareness triggered by Gezi certainly helped a consciousness about the potential destructiveness of these huge construction and building projects,” he said.