On Feb. 18, a court ruled to acquit all defendants in the Gezi Park trial, a bizarre affair where civil society figures and celebrities were charged with plotting the protests for the purpose of toppling the government. What began as a few low-key demonstrations spread nationwide, ballooning into one of the most significant events in the history of the republic, an explosion of anger that erupted over how urban spaces were being transformed and the lack of input residents had in this process.
On the evening of May 31, 2013, thousands of people assembled along a vast stretch of Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue. They sought to reach Gezi Park, which lies across the beginning of the pedestrian thoroughfare on the opposite side of Taksim Square. For several days, peaceful protests were staged in the park to prevent its destruction but turned violent after police teargassed campers in their tents.
By the evening, Istiklal was packed shoulder to shoulder with rows of people advancing before retreating as they faced a nonstop barrage of tear gas canisters fired by the riot police tasked with preventing them from reaching the park. The park was slated to be replaced by a replica of the Ottoman military barracks that once stood over it and was subsequently demolished and turned into green space in the early Republican era. The bombastic structure was to be the latest addition to the more than 100 malls that currently operate across Turkey’s largest city.
While the protests aimed to save the park, they were about much more than that. They stood in defiance of the crass over-development that has suffocated the city, sacrificed its green spaces and commercialized its historic legacy. Despite Istiklal being the country’s most important street, home to an unparalleled number of historic buildings, it has become overrun with chain stores and malls, a process that continued in full speed after Gezi.
Though the Gezi protests – which ultimately saved the park- overshadowed the Emek Cinema demonstrations that failed to prevent the demise of the iconic theater, the two events are intertwined. Activists fought tirelessly to save the Emek Cinema between 2010 and 2013, but were unsuccessful. The once-splendid Art Nouveau Cercle d’Orient building is now the Grand Pera mall, and a Madame Tussauds has supplanted the theatre.
Yet the energy and spirit of the the Emek Cinema saga coalesced into the Gezi protests that broke out weeks after the theater was demolished. Its loss and the the threat of losing Gezi provided the initial inspiration for the calm, light-hearted protests that were held in the park before they took on a new dimension.
Next to Grand Pera is the Demirören Mall, located in another once-regal building, the former Deveaux Apartments. The Demirören family runs a powerful holding company that maintains friendly relations with the government, and built a hotly-contested shopping center that involved adding additional floors to the top of the historic structure, and damaging the neighboring 16th century Hüseyin Ağa mosque in the process, requiring it to undergo extensive restoration.
While the Demirören Mall is usually crowded, the Grand Pera hasn’t enjoyed the same success. An entire floor that one is required to pass by to get to the new theatre is vacant. The mall feels like an once-thriving American shopping center in its death throes amid the Amazon era, rather than a brand new facility. It is so dead that it might be the only mall in Istanbul that doesn’t have a metal detector at the entry.
Though Grand Pera may end up going belly up, down at the opposition end of Istiklal, the garishly-restored Narmanlı Han building, among the oldest and most distinct on the street, has become a thriving mini-mall of its own, with no less than three cafe chains (two international and one local) and a hip restaurant called Food Hall, serving a generic global melange of dishes that have gained prestige in the Instagram era. On the right side of the building is a Gratis makeup store, of which another can be found on Istiklal just minutes away, and then yet another near the street’s entrance. There is also a Museum of Illusions, the irony of which is not lost on those who remember the old Narmanlı Han.
Only a few years ago, one could still catch a glimpse of the former Narmanlı Han’s pleasant green courtyard, a grayed and frayed yet proud old soul of a building dating back to the 1830s initially built as the Ottoman Empire’s Russian embassy. Iconic painters Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu and Aliye Berger and Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar – among the most important novelists in Turkish literature – later lived or worked in Narmanlı Han. That courtyard once had wisps of lavender wisteria and a loyal gang of street cats.
Narmanlı Han’s current owners even installed biographies of Eyüboğlu, Berger, and Tanpınar at the entrance, a cheap attempt to acknowledge the storied legacy of this former gem of a structure. This hasn’t bothered patrons, as the whole complex was crowded and buzzing on a recent visit. Purchased for $57 million and ‘restored’ at a great cost, the investment seems to be beginning to pay off.
The Gezi Park protests won’t fade from collective memory, nor will they fall off the front page anytime soon, as Osman Kavala, a notable businessman and civil society activist who was the key defendant in the trial, was subsequently arrested later in the evening, this time on separate charges related to the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The tactic of releasing and rearresting prominent political prisoners has been employed several times in recent years, so the unfortunate news was less than shocking.
Despite a downturn in the economy caused by a perpetually-moving construction sector that has since stalled, new malls are still being built and filled with customers. When thousands of people took to Istiklal on May 31, 2013, it wasn’t just a strategic assembly. Anybody can walk down the pedestrian street, but the dominance of malls and stores that replaced the age-old cinemas, patisseries, and small businesses that once characterized the avenue and complimented its historic atmosphere has turned it into a frenzied throng of shoppers rather than a pleasant stretch to stroll and enjoy the surroundings.
As for Gezi, though there is a heavy and constant police presence at the entrance, it nevertheless remains a park and the plans for its transformation into a mall seem to have been permanently shelved, a fact to which many point as definitive proof that the protests were a victory.