Almost a decade ago, Emine Demir, 30, and her family chose to settle in Istanbul’s run-down, but central, Tarlabasi District, selling water and tissues on Taksim Square to buy a small apartment. It was a decision she has come to regret bitterly.
Her building, along with 278 others, has been placed under demolition orders. When it is gone, the plan is to erect a new gated community for Istanbul’s wealthy citizens, complete with offices, hotels and shopping centers. The poor will be gone, and the rich will move in.
“They promised us that nobody would be victimized, but they victimized all of us,” she said. “They threw all of us out into the street. What are laws in Turkey worth if they allow this?”
Tarlabasi is just one of the many redevelopment projects under way in Istanbul. About 50 neighborhoods are earmarked for demolition and renewal, and 7.5 billion Turkish lira (US$3.96 billion) were set aside for Istanbul’s public development projects last year alone, according to the Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas.
Projects like these, as well as other gargantuan development schemes, have fueled the anger of hundreds of thousands of Turks against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the past week and a half, confronting him with his biggest challenge in a decade.
The rebellion on the streets of dozens of Turkey’s cities is being staged by protesters who feel that the prime minister is not listening to them. In projects worth tens of billions, the Turkish government wants to give Istanbul a new airport, the world’s biggest, and Erdogan wants to cut a new canal on the European side of Istanbul linking the Black and Marmara seas. He also recently broke ground for the construction of a new bridge spanning the Bosphorus Strait and wants to build a new mosque, bigger than the ancient ones that decorate Europe’s fastest-growing city.
“Erdogan speaks about his Istanbul projects, but should he not tackle all of our problems first before talking about a new airport, a new bridge, a canal, two entire new satellite cities?” Demir asked. “First listen to the people, to what they have to say. Speak about personal freedoms, unemployment and poverty first, and then about giant construction projects.”
The building boom is part of Erdogan’s political and economic strategy. There are plans for two entire new cities, each of 1 million people, on either side of the Bosphorus. However, it was the planned demolition of a city center park to make way for another shopping mall in the shape of a kitschy replica of Ottoman-era military barracks that was the trigger for the protests that have escalated nationally and are now targeted at the prime minister.
“Linking the whole economy to the construction sector is very problematic,” urban activist and academic Yasar Adanali said. “It turns a city into something that is supposed to generate profit without taking into account the needs of the city and the people.”
However, not everyone is unhappy. Two years ago, Nedim Demirel, 50, having been displaced from Tarlabasi, decided to move into an apartment offered to him by the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKI), a government body that provides low-cost apartments for sale, but no rented housing. He will have to pay 500 lira a month for the next 15 years, plus bills.
“After 15 years, I will be a house owner,” he said. “And it’s nice in Kayasehir, quiet and clean.”