In the midst of Turkey’s fourth week of protests, sparked by the planned demolition of an Istanbul park, there is finally an official glimmer of remorse. Promising to consult the public “even for bus stops,” Istanbul Mayor Kadip Tobpaş appears to have recognized the importance of citizen consultation — an encouraging first step not shared by his predecessor, current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose attempts to reshape the urban landscape from his office in Ankara have led to accusations of practicing landscape architecture without a license. The Colbert Report compared his approach to President Obama sketching out left turn lanes.
As soon as protests about the proposed demolition and redevelopment of Gezi Park into a shopping mall went viral across Turkey, demonstrators made it clear to the media that the unrest is about far more than just a park. Erdoğan’s other policy intrusions into the daily lives of Turks — such as regulating the sale of alcohol and suggesting that women should have a certain number of children — have struck a nerve among the slight minority of voters who did not support his reelection.
However, for the broad cross-section of Istanbulites who chose to make a stand by staking a claim to the park (located in the historic and politically charged Taksim Square), the public space in question remains a fundamental issue whose future is unresolved and whose symbolic history the government has systematically ignored.
Ali Onat Türker, an Istanbul architect, is adamant that Occupy Gezi, as the two-week encampment was called until police violently cleared the park on June 15, has roots in the rest of the country’s outrage.
“What’s so special about the Gezi Park protest was that it’s so local,” he explained at a café in the Cihangir neighborhood, whose main artery empties into Taksim Square, the central city’s massive transit hub. “People don’t like this neo-liberal development, places becoming homogeneous, everywhere shopping malls with the same feeling. The protesters were defending locality, the uniqueness of the place, the aura.”
On a sunny summer Sunday it was hard to believe that just hours before, the streets had been choked by tear gas as police pursued protesters down side streets and fired canisters into residential areas. Unlike Erdoğan’s claims of terrorist activity or looters, however, the neighborhood was in fine shape, likely because Cihangir’s reputation as a hipster ’hood for young, secular, creative types has made it a ready source of protesters. Gas masks have become the new must-have accessory, dangling from purses and belt buckles when not in use, and the city’s ubiquitous sidewalk vendors sell goggles, surgical masks and hardhats alongside rice-stuffed mussels and sesame bread.
In Cihangir, there were no broken shop windows or torn-up streets, though barricades were erected in other neighborhoods and a few glass bus shelters were shattered. The biggest daytime sign of unrest was the ever-present graffiti calling for the prime minister’s resignation. One wry tag in English quoted ’90s alt-rocker Beck next to Erdoğan’s name: “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me.”
It is no coincidence, according to Türker, that Gezi Park stands 100 meters from the campus of Istanbul Technical University, home to the country’s best architecture and urban planning programs. “That’s the reason why it started,” he asserted. “The resisters were all students and concerned about the city.” In fact one tear-gassed woman in a red dress, whose photograph has become a symbol of the protests, is an academic at ITU.
Gezi, meaning “promenade,” was created in the 19th century as a kind of pleasure garden for the European minority and other Istanbul elites. It abutted a military barracks — which Erdoğan wanted to recreate next to the mall, adding a festival marketplace veneer to the variation on a theme park proposal — and became a popular destination. In recent decades, neglect and poor design have rendered it underused during the day, with just a few restaurants and a place for outdoor wedding photos, and a no man’s land at night.
“Honestly, I never really went here before Occupy Gezi,” said Yasemene Ayid, a designer for a clothing manufacturer that delivered free t-shirts to Gezi’s medical tent and food distribution center before the police crackdown. “It wasn’t a very nice park. It was a place where the homeless and alcoholics went.”
With hard edges and a raised entrance up several steps and across several lanes of frenetic Taksim traffic, entering the park is a conscious choice that most pedestrians avoided.
Contemporary efforts to reclaim the park date to nearly two years ago, when students from ITU and their allies began meeting regularly at informal gatherings — “a hippie thing,” according to Türker. They would play music and knit bomb the trees, some of the very few left in extremely dense central Istanbul. While categorized as environmentalists by the international media, in reality they had more in common with design school students decking out the street with lawn chairs for an annual Park(ing) Day than Sierra Club members.
It was only in recent weeks, with the suggestion that the Sunday group “was not speaking in the people’s language,” as Türker described it, that what could be called “Save Gezi Park” became the broader “Occupy Gezi.”
The result, especially after the first clashes with riot police, which left many injured and a few dead, was a design charette on overdrive. An online app, modeled after FarmVille, served as a digital forum for input on what the park could become. A monument to the slain protesters, for example, was quickly put on the table. There was, briefly, a sense of imaginative possibility for alternative proposals to a shopping mall bejeweled with luxury condos, the kind of exclusive space that has been proliferating across Istanbul as Turkey’s economy has boomed.
In the park itself, everything from political discussion groups to a classic corner soapbox to free food and tea giveaways to a medical tent to a take-a-cigarette, leave-a-cigarette box — Turks smoke like chimneys — was suddenly activating Gezi Park in a way that it hadn’t been since its prewar heyday.
But the events of June 15 have left the park in limbo and, at least for the time being, in a classic destroy-the-town-to-save-it situation. On the one hand, the shopping mall proposal is dead in the water. The courts ruled it illegal, retailers have begun to pull out and the resolve of Istanbulis would ensure protests every step of the way should construction cranes arrive on the site. On the other hand, the government is not keen to again allow access to a public park that has gone from marginal to monumental in just a few short weeks.
One suspects a makeshift memorial might arise, like in Boston’s Copley Square following the marathon bombings, but Erdoğan surely has no appetite for any physical reminders of the ardent opposition to both his polarizing policies and repressive response.
Instead, in the latest evolution of a saga showing no signs of ending, Turks stand immobile for hours on end at significant sites — in front of public buildings, astride statues of beloved founding father Atatürk, or on the ground where bodies fell in Taksim Square. The ostensibly legal tactic has confounded police.
“The idea of [Erdoğan’s] democracy is also spatially related,” Türker said. “He has the right to dictate where you will live, even your body, your consumption. You have no jurisdiction. The park is a symbol for everything — the city, your body.”
As Turks nationwide take a stand, quite literally, for the abstract principles of democracy and the right to assemble, the recent history of Gezi Park has added another layer to the Taksim palimpsest of protest and politics. And in the absence of access to a physical space where recent events can be commemorated, citizens have made themselves temporary monuments, waiting for the gates to be unlocked.
Gregory Scruggs is a freelance writer on urban planning, design and culture. Karol Malok is a landscape architect who lived in Istanbul.
Gregory Scruggs is a Seattle-based independent journalist who writes about solutions for cities. He has covered major international forums on urbanization, climate change, and sustainable development where he has interviewed dozens of mayors and high-ranking officials in order to tell powerful stories about humanity’s urban future. He has reported at street level from more than two dozen countries on solutions to hot-button issues facing cities, from housing to transportation to civic engagement to social equity. In 2017, he won a United Nations Correspondents Association award for his coverage of global urbanization and the UN’s Habitat III summit on the future of cities. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.