During this uncanny period, our primary concern has been to protect ourselves and our loved ones and to stay healthy and sane. Yet some have to choose between their health and their ability to put food on the table and pay the bills.
Still, those of us fortunate enough to be primarily preoccupied with defending our health and sanity also have an obligation to defend Istanbul. Prior to the coronavirus, Istanbul was already under siege from a variety of threats: rampant development, the destruction of green space, mega-projects that harm rather than serve public interest, the continual monitoring and control of public space by police and other security forces, and the chronic problem of countless, individual instances of ugliness defacing an otherwise incomparably beautiful city.
This siege continues silently amid the coronavirus epidemic. Last week, I wrote about how one of Istanbul’s last three historic urban gardens located on the inside of the old city walls, small plots of land squeezed in between modern buildings that they outdate by hundreds of years, was destroyed by the district municipality who built a ‘hobby garden’ in its place.
Aside from a cornucopia of produce, these gardens are the fruits of centuries of history that lives on in the present day, if hanging by a thread. With a media consumed by the novel coronavirus, reports of the garden’s destruction didn’t emerge until over a month after the fact.
“They are making fun of us. This is blatant mockery,” a friend told me as discussed the fiasco. “They” were the ruling Justice and Development Party-led (AKP) Fatih Municipality which was responsible for this disaster and like the government, seems to fetishize concrete, while “us” were city residents concerned for Istanbul’s history, heritage, green space and livability.
When it comes to the constant splotches of ugliness that mar Istanbul, there is an urban crusader that fights back using Twitter to inform district municipalities and the city of these never-ending acts of betrayal. Çirkin Istanbul (Ugly Istanbul) has 95,000 followers, and defiantly tweets at the authorities with photos of gaudy signage on historic buildings, illegally parked vehicles in public spaces, and sinister construction projects threatening the integrity of historic structures.
Two years ago I spoke with this concerned citizen, who we’ll call Devrim, in a cafe near the Galata Tower about his inspiration and numerous successes he had achieved that have been made possible by a large social media platform and attentive local authorities.
I took a page out of Devrim’s book recently after being horrified to see that one of my favorite buildings in my neighborhood, a miniature, sandy-golden one-story Art Deco beauty built during the 1920’s or 30’s, had been defiled with a huge red and white metal sign emblazoned with the brand name of a large company that produces the banal, one-dimensional window frames and balcony doors that have been installed in millions of buildings in Istanbul and throughout the country.
As an admirer of this charming, elegant building for over a year, I had taken snapshots of it prior to the signs installation and tweeted a photo of the before and after, notifying the Şişli Municipality in a subsequent tweet. The images received significant attention and the municipality got involved. Within a few days, I received a call from an official saying that the sign had removed. I had to believe it to see it and ambled a few streets over and sure enough, it was gone, and the building’s dignity (most of it, at least, the grubby modern aluminum shutters still covered the door) had been restored.
It was a small victory, but an encouraging one nonetheless. If we don’t take it in to our hands to protect this city’s heritage, it will be exploited and desecrated without challenge, and this will fall under increasingly deafened ears thanks to the epidemic.
Those people that risk their lives by going every day to work are already defending the city. They have much greater problems than aesthetic issues and construction projects gone awry but that isn’t to say they aren’t bothered by them either. Garbage collectors, street food vendors, metro security guards, delivery drivers and many other people are defending and protecting the city by making it a livable, clean, safe and inhabitable place as is possible, particularly during these hard times We should never lose sight of their brave and valuable contributions that they continue to make at a great risk to themselves.
Istanbul, despite the recent infiltration of block after block of concrete and clusters of skyscrapers, fancy hotels and residential communities, still bestows upon us radiant springs, awe-inspiring early autumns, mild-if-drizzly winters and hot, muggy yet not unbearable summers.
Even as it is choked with smog and concrete, the bodies of water that surround it allow us to breathe and gaze upon their pristine, glinting surfaces that discretely change in tone according to the weather. Istanbul’s deep history cannot be ignored nor can it be covered up or defiled, in spite of many efforts that seek to do so. The countless structural traces of this history presents itself to us almost wherever we go, sometimes practically concealed within the confines of its modern surroundings, waiting to be discovered by a perceptive city dweller.
As we take preventative measures to protect ourselves from this virus, we must not neglect the obligation we have to protect the city, because while Istanbul protects us, it provides us with so much more; life, work, scenic beauty, inspiration, kinetic energy, deep neighborly relations, an incredible nightlife and social atmosphere, and a commitment to remaining the most important and beautiful city on the world where many different peoples and empires have settled in and fought over for millenniums based on these unmatchable attributes. To protect Istanbul is to protect ourselves. It is imperative that we stand up for the city that has given us everything.