The dispossession of urban commons: Istanbul

Don’t say it’s the necessary result of historical, social, and economic conditions – I know!  My head bows before the thing you mention.  But my heart doesn’t speak that language.

Nazim Hikmet, The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin

… the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be …

David Harvey, Rebel Cities

The physiognomy of a city is the momentarily congealed struggle between oppressor and oppressed in the sculpting of space.  But it is but momentary, for sometimes hidden, sometimes open, the struggle is permanent, making of the city a living, contested reality.

Instanbul does not mask this conflict.  And its recent history, under successive AKP governments,  celebrates a politics of dispossession under the banner of triumphant development.

The city in 1970 numbered but 2 million.  Today it sits at roughly 16 million, and occupies an area, ever expanding, of over 2000 square miles, 4.5 times larger than the city of New York.  It makes up 20% of the country’s overall population, 40% of the state’s tax revenue and is at the moment the object of construction projects valued at over 100 billion dollars.  The scale of the urban “renewal” is literally pharaonic: the building of a third and largest airport in the world, at a cost of 15 billion dollars; the construction of transportation infrastructure, of bridges, tunnels, rail lines; building permits for the construction of 43 million square metres of space in the first three months of 2014 alone, more than double for the whole of the previous year.  And all of this with legal sanction and state incentive. (Guardian 02/07/2014)

Today, the construction industry in turkey, directly and indirectly, represents 20% of the national economy, and politically, is a dominant actor in its support for the AKP. (Reuters 29/10/2014)

For Erdogan, the country’s president and former mayor of the city, Istanbul is to become a “global” city; a financial, commercial and tourist centre, equal to London, New York, Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Shanghai and the like.

For the city’s residents, this has meant the destruction of farm lands, green spaces, fresh water sources, real estate speculation, price increases, corruption, and large scale forced evictions.  50,000 aged buildings are slated for demolition, justified on all manner of grounds, but very often carried out illegally and with little concern for the fate of the expelled populations.

Old and central neighbourhoods such as Sulukule, Tarlabasi, Okmeydani, Çinçiu, Tokludede are now the place names for ethnic and class cleansing.  In 2005, the Sulukule neighbourhood was cleared of its centuries old Roma population.  Tarlabasi, in the immediate vicinity of Taksim Square and the Istiklal shopping/tourist district, with its remarkable tapestry of ethnicities, classes, political and gender/sexual identifications, is  presently largely cordoned off for destruction.  In Okmeydani, the DHKP/C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation party/Front) lead an open fight with state authorities’ efforts to destroy the working class neighbourhood.

The urban transformation of Istanbul is a social and political restructuring of the city, cleansing the city of those who defy, or stand in the wake of, new forms of economic exploitation and political-cultural hegemony.

Cities must be seen as territories for the production of spaces of power, of domination.  Urbanisation, and its science, “urbanism”, is not an innocent distribution and organistion of populations and activities in constructed space.  It is rather the political-economic creation of systems of distribution, segregation, appropriation and expropriation, that produces and reproduces relations of power, the relations of power that define capitalism.  The city is thus comprised of fields of tension, surveillance, control, but also of resistance and rebellion.

David Harvey teaches us/reminds us that urbanisation has always been a class phenomenon, in which the surplus product of capitalist production is geographically and socially concentrated.

Capitalism rests … upon the perpetual search for surplus value (profit).  But to produce surplus value capitalists have to produce a surplus product.  This means that capitalism is perpetually producing the surplus product that urbanization requires.  The reverse relation also holds.  Capitalism needs urbanization to absorb the surplus products it perpetually produces.  In this way an inner connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization. (David Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 5)

Capitalism is systemically condemned by the need to find “profitable terrains for capitalist production and absorption” (Ibid.), of which the city has been and remains a privileged example.  And in the credit driven global financial capitalism of our time, urbanisation has itself been globalised.

The medieval or renaissance city, the reference still of the urban imaginary of many, is dead.  Cities are today nodal points in the flows of commodity exchange.  And the greater their dimension and the more intense the relations of exploitation that they permit can be secured, the more successful the city is at attracting capital investments.

The body of the city is then marked by invasive infrastructure development, the construction of proliferating luxury residential and commercial spaces, financial service centres and the legal and political frameworks dedicated to minimising the surveillance and obstacles to the movements of capital.  But such can only be carried out through violence, a violence sustained by authoritarian political power and the liberalisation of land and property markets, property speculation, and the distribution of properties to those activities promising the greatest financial rewards.

Housing for the poor, the working classes, their associated neighbourhoods, traditional commercial and social spaces are then targeted for demolition and removal.  Urbanisation, under capitalism, inevitably translates into enclosure and expropriation: the bourgeoisiefication of the city.

What resistance is possible before such processes is what is at stake in Instanbul, and of course in other cities.  Modest efforts have been made to pressure local governments to become more responsive to their populations (e.g. the Istanbul Covenant), as well as initiatives to bring together urban planners, local municipal authorities and community associations (e.g. the Design Atelier Kadiköy).  But it is the Gezi Park-Taksim Square occupation that continues to resonate as a political possibility, but now in the multiform creation of autonomous urban spaces of resistance.  It is in such initiatives that a different city can emerge.

They are enemies of hope, my love, of flowing water and the fruitful tree, of life growing and unfolding.  Death has branded them – rotting teeth, decaying flesh – and soon they will be dead and done for good.  And yes, my love, freedom will walk around swinging its arms in its Sunday best – workers’ overalls! – yes, freedom in this beautiful country …  

Nazim Hikmet, 9-10 P.M. Poems

David Harvey in Istanbul …

Videos by by Nejla Osserian: the destruction of the Roma community of Sulukule …

… the Sulukule Childrens Art Atelier …

… Sulukule: Transformation for whom? …

… Tokludede …

Dreams of Tokludede, by Emircan Soksan …

Vice News on the gentrification wars …

Urban dispossession in Izmir …

The excellent documentary, Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits (2011), directed by Imre Izem …

Trailer for the documentary Tarlabasi and me …

See also the sites: Tarlabasi Istanbul, Reclaim Istanbul,

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