Istanbul: They Call it Chaos, We Call it Home

by Naela Rose

Photograph: Oliver Zimmermann
All photographs: Oliver Zimmermann

The cobbled pavements teem with a buzzing frenzy of people. Tourists, locals, street-sellers and punters alike create a steady stream of bodies, flowing consistently through the narrow streets of this heaving city.

Whether you love or hate it, Istanbul is without doubt a city that splits opinion. For some, it is an exotic metropolis – steeped in rich history and culture – pulsating with modern life. For others, the city environment is pure chaos. Many local people feel that Istanbul is over-crowded and over-developed; a suffocating and homogenised urban landscape, representative of the negative consequences of capitalist culture.

The fact is, both the physical place and conceptual space of Istanbul remains at odds with the sheer quantities of people that inhabit the city; Istanbul is one of the most over-crowded cities in the world, with a population of approximately 15 million and rising. The city sprawls over 2,063 square miles, spanning the Bosphorus Strait that separates East and West, forming the largest urban agglomeration in Europe and the Middle East.

For me, this colossal city is the very definition of contradiction. Everything here happens in extremes and changes rapidly. Around the corner from my flat in Galata, a small independent pop-up shop sells foreign coffee, fair-trade T-Shirts and illustrated posters that read: Istanbul. They call it chaos, we call it home. I bought one to remind myself why I like living amid the pandemonium of this urban jungle, in all its gloriously paradoxical charm.

Istanbul is a patchwork of dazzlingly busy spaces that never seem to sleep – and for this reason it can at times be an exhausting, even claustrophobic, city to inhabit. However, historically Istanbulians have always conducted their business in the open, always out on the street. There is an inherent sense here that outdoor space belongs to the public. The streets are occupied daily with tradesmen selling their wares, exchanging produce and sharing stories. Unlike the common conception of public space in large cities in the Western world, the streets of Istanbul have traditionally been considered as an open playground, within which trade, performance art, and food culture thrive.

Turks are not afraid of public displays of emotion, nor are they shy about public appearances. Couples argue passionately in the street, crying and yelling at each other; old men laugh and goad each other while playing backgammon and drinking çay together on the roadside; street children sell tissues, phone batteries and chewing gum; food merchants sound their street calls, advertising their wares on every corner. However, despite the vibrancy of Istanbul’s street culture, the outdoor areas of the city remain intimidatingly hectic and over-crowded. The city consistently overflows with people, relentlessly vibrating with noise and energy, car horns screeching day and night. As a result it possesses a tumultuous, even oppressive, atmosphere.

These days, there is also a menacing police presence in central areas of Istanbul. Since the 2013 Gezi Parki protests in Taksim Square it has become clear that public spaces are controlled and shaped by anyone but the public. What had initially begun as a wave of peaceful demonstrations in the city’s central park soon developed into massive civil unrest, resulting in violent and prolonged riots between protestors and Turkish police. Since Gezi, street culture in Istanbul has been gradually eroded by the ongoing threat of police violence. The controversial issue of public space is made more complex by the current government’s totalitarian approach to crowd control within Turkish cities. As a result, citizens’ civil rights – such as the right to public assembly, peaceful protest and freedom of speech in the streets – are being systematically eradicated.

Today most Turks rightly feel a sense of fear and paranoia about the way in which the government controls public spaces. I still cannot get used to walking amid the multitude of stern-faced, uniformed officers, each of them armed with loaded machine-guns, batons and tear gas pistols. Furthermore, the de-humanising effect of Istanbul’s over-developed, heavily moderated public spaces – particularly green spaces – under the AKP government has diminished its citizens’ ability to have their say about how public spaces are used. There are currently growing rumours that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will in fact go ahead with construction in Gezi Parki this year; many Turkish websites state that the government is preparing to push forward with building plans for the original shopping mall, which was the catalyst for the 2013 riots.

Among most Istanbul citizens there is a growing sense of disempowerment within their frenetic urban environment and oppressive political system. They have not forgotten the brutality of the Gezi movement – which shook their city, killing 11 citizens and wounding 8,163 more – nor have they forgiven their government’s heavy-handed occupation of the streets that previously seemed to belong to the people. Many locals feel constricted by the sheer lack of free space in Istanbul: they find the oppressive urban landscape increasingly depressing. My Turkish friends complain that there are not enough accessible green spaces within the inner-city districts in which they might claim respite from the stresses of everyday modern life. They feel there is too much traffic and too many people, too much noise and seemingly endless construction work; they say the city is utter chaos.

Some pro-government supporters argue that the economic boom, made possible by the success of the construction industry in Turkey, has enabled Istanbul to become a thriving, cosmopolitan player on the world stage. But at what price? According to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the green area ratio per person here is on average only 6.4 square meters. The standard living space here is made up of chock-a-block apartments without access to any gardens, or courtyards at all. In some districts it is hard to spot a single tree, let alone a park. Indeed, capitalist industry has meant that Istanbul has fallen victim to relentless, out-of-control development. Today, this internationally revered metropolis is becoming one of concrete, conflict and over-crowding, with an ever-rising population.

Yet, perhaps it is not too late for the authorities to reconsider how Istanbul’s public spaces function. Many Istanbulians believe that the government needs to start making ‘green’ choices. A possible solution could be to pedestrianise specific areas of the city and to limit government funding for the unnecessary construction of yet another shopping mall. I personally believe that in order to retain a democratic approach to public space, it must be the job of the government to moderate industry, to control construction and pollution, and to listen to the voices of its citizens.

Although the world may regard Istanbul as a great cultural destination, the Turkish people who live here feel that their voices are being silenced. They remain deeply concerned about the issue of public space in their rapidly growing city. While there are no simple solutions for the dilemmas posed by living in such a large metropolis, there are also many positives. Istanbul is a multifaceted place that still has so much to offer – not to mention the beauty and magnitude of its geographical formation.

If you walk down the hill from Galata, through Karaköy, away from the inner-city chaos and towards the coastline, you can watch sunlight dancing on the Bosphorus and glistening along the silhouettes of mosques scattered across the horizon. You can sit and drink çay by the waterside. Here you can look out over the only truly open space left in Istanbul. By the water’s edge, with the commotion of the cityscape at your back, you can feel the sea breeze on your skin. Here you are able to get perspective and take a much needed breath of fresh air.

 All photographs by Oliver Zimmermann and all rights reserved 


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