Istanbul’s urban regeneration

Childhood memories and a changing megacity


Istanbul, Türkei  I grew up in Kaya Palas, a 14-story building on Iğrıp Street in the Asian side of Istanbul and as I write these words it has no roof. In its stead are machines tearing apart the building from top to bottom, floor by floor. By the time anybody reads this article, the building that was my childhood’s palace will have ceased to exist.

The European and the Asian side of Istanbul flickr/cc/Juraj Patekar

Our apartment overlooked Fenerbahçe Orduevi, perhaps the most fancy military officer’s club in Istanbul boasting a view of the Princess Islands and its own mini-zoo. Kaya Palas was the center of my universe for many years. It was there that I cultivated my earliest memories, learned to read, and had violent fights with my sister. It was in the parking lot of that building where I learned to rollerblade, and in its lobby where I waited in the dark hours of the morning for the school bus to pick me up and take me from the Asian to the European side of Istanbul. It was in that apartment that my mother informed me of her divorce from my father and it was inside Kaya Palas where I sat with the English teacher she hired to prepare us for our big move to the USA. That blond lady taught me the word for eraser as “rubber.”

Citywide renewal project

The demolishment of Kaya Palas is not unique — half of the buildings in the neighborhood are either at some stage of being torn down or rebuilt. They call it Kentsel Dönüşüm — “Urban Regeneration.” Under the pretext of an impending major earthquake that will inevitably hit this gigantic metropolis of 15 million inhabitants, the government initiated this citywide renewal project to demolish buildings tagged “çürük,” literally meaning “rotten.”

The process is simple: any resident can apply at the municipality to have an expert evaluate the earthquake risk of their residence. If deemed “rotten” — and chances are it will be — the municipality and the contractors whose pockets it expands convince, coerce, or even threaten skeptical residents for the demolishment of their building. A newer, better, and supposedly less earthquake-prone building then springs up in its place and the residents enjoy a better quality of life. That’s story that comes nicely packaged on the municipalities’ websites.

Low-income districts such as Tarlabaşı, centrally located among Istanbul’s most sought-after neighborhoods, are not immune to urban regeneration. © Kai Simmerl

It is not surprising that affluent areas along the Asian coastal line of Istanbul stretching from Kadiköy to Kartal are areas where urban renewal is most visible. There, it is difficult if not impossible to walk on a street without bumping into a construction site. Of course, pockets of low-income districts such as Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, and Balat, centrally located among Istanbul’s most sought-after neighborhoods have not been immune. Their small streets and old houses that still preserve a tinge of the nostalgic taste of a bygone Istanbul have been cleared and the houses of their long-term residents demolished to make way for buildings they cannot afford.

A necessary evil: 1999 earthquake killed tens of thousands

Newspapers are laden with stories about the real incentives behind urban regeneration, feature articles about disadvantaged renters and owners victimized by the process, and failed civil movements to save entire neighborhoods gasping for their last breath under the bulldozers of large construction companies. Meanwhile the memory of the 1999 earthquake that took the lives of tens of thousands of people in Istanbul and the surrounding towns is still alive. The threat of a major earthquake and the city’s unpreparedness are painstakingly real. Urban regeneration may be a necessary evil but most of Istanbul’s residents seem to be more then slightly disturbed by the inconvenience.

I have not been a resident of Kaya Palas nor of Istanbul since 1997, when I moved with my mother and sister to California. Yet I often think about my room in that apartment. Despite my mother’s screams, I had covered its walls with writings, which at first were sketched by chalk then etched in permanent ink. Out of space on the four walls, climbing on ladders to reach the ceiling was not uncommon in my room, where all who stepped in wished to leave a mark. The thirteen-year-old that abandoned Kaya Palas to become an American left among its chalked walls a part herself that belonged to Turkey, a part of herself that never stopped being Turkish.

This was partly due to the fact that Iğrıp Street never left me. Each year we visited our hometown and stayed with my grandparents, who still live on the same street. Every year I glanced at the concrete blocks of my childhood, looked up towards my old room as if it still remained the way I once left it. Sometimes I lingered for a long time, silently chatting with the girl who used to stare out of that window, wishing to be a grown-up. Once or twice I even thought to ring the bell and ask the new residents if I could take a peek. I never did.

A couple of years ago, urban renewal knocked on my grandparents’ door. The possibility of leaving their apartment was that disquieting topic at the dinner table that families at times of crisis circle around and always manage to find. It kept them up at night and caused a spike in my grandfather’s ever-volatile blood pressure. While my grandparents are fortunate enough to be able to afford the expenses incurred by a rotten tag on their building, they are not physically equipped to handle the toll it would have on their fragile health. For my grandfather who is nearing 90, replacing a broken mug he is used to drinking his morning coffee from is a change he must reckon with. The younger apartment owners supported the project, seeing the inconvenience and expense of moving to a rental for two years as a financial investment for the future. And thus began my grandparents’ alliance with the two other pensioners in the building to block the demolishment.

Times are changing: The politics beneath the rubble

When the saga of my grandparents’ renewal predicament began, Kaya Palas still stood strong across the street, the window to our living room gracefully peering out towards the Fenerbahçe Officer’s Club. As a child we had a babysitter married to a retired army officer, granting her entry to the club. Rena Teyze used to take my sister and I on strolls through the club’s tree-lined streets to feed the ducks swimming in the soldier-made pond. We giggled as we saluted the soldiers guarding the grounds, feeling special and proud to be a part of this echelon even if by association. The army, as was drilled into our heads in school, was the guardian of our republic and democracy. That and a place where young soldiers hung around little zoos filled with cute bunnies and smiled as they saluted little girls skipping around them.

While Fenerbahçe Orduevi occupies expensive soil, those who could not enjoy chocolate bars available for purchase at prices cheaper than water in the club’s cafeteria have been criticizing the generals’ lavish lifestyle for a long time. Allied with the Pashas, the Kemalist regimes of Turkey’s past had deemed a bit of economic corruption a fair price to pay for the protection of an entire country. However, with the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) keen on stripping the army of its extended powers, the generals faced different challenges.

Urban regeneration is advertised on the streets of Istanbul as yet another accomplishment of the AKP regime. It looms over Fenerbahçe’s military club if not at the backdrop of demolishment orders to illegally constructed villas of retired generals, than embodied in the protests staged in front of its gates over the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials — the judiciary battles in the power-war between the army and the AKP government. While the club remains protected from bulldozers for the time being, the roofless Kaya Palas is a reminder that times are changing and not even soldiers can protect the past.

The Istanbul of my childhood is disappearing, and the Istanbul of my grandparents when the population of Istanbul had yet to reach a million is already gone. Before they built the first bridge to link Asia to Europe, my mother used to take a ferry everyday to cross the Bosphorous in her school uniform. That bridge is now overshadowed by the Marmaray undersea railtunnel. In Istanbul I mostly feel no different than a tourist as I try to navigate the metro or the Metrobus system, which did not exist when I was a resident. When I take cabs and the driver asks me whether he should take this road or that, I falter. They ask me where my hometown is, assuming that like 90 percent of this city I am an internal immigrant. No I am a native of Istanbul, just like my parents and my grandparents and their parents, I say. Or I lie and say that I am from Edirne or Izmir, just passing through on a visit.

If not urban renewal, the battle of time and old age will change the streets

On my last visit my grandparents joyously informed me of their victory in the battle of urban regeneration. At first the younger residents of their building keen on receiving newer apartments wouldn’t budge. Then they realized that the potential financial gain would not be as they originally thought and the project was halted. For now. If not urban renewal, the battle of time and old age will eventually change the streets of my childhood. One way or another I will soon leave Iğrıp Street for good and if not, it will surely leave me.

S.O.S. Istanbul Protests in Tarlabaşı flickr/istanbulsos

On this last visit I stood in front of Kaya Palas, knowing it would be the last time. I counted from the bottom to the second, the fourth, and then to the eighth floors where my friends used to live. My life back then had a different rhythm, more steady perhaps, less chaotic. Like the rhythm of the elevator I took up and down to knock on doors to see which of the building’s kids would come out and play. All apartments were empty now, the curtains removed, the windows hollow.

I gazed at Kaya Palas one last time, studying its outer layers, imagining the installations and pipes that carried the waters with which I had washed street dogs I secretly snuck in the house. Just below the torn roof, a huge lopsided red heart was painted with markers on the outer wall of a balcony. I imagined a thirteen-year-old girl saying goodbye.

Publiziert Oktober 2015