Last week, the ownership of Istanbul’s Gezi Park was transferred from the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) to a foundation. Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations declared that the park would now belong to the Sultan Beyazıt Han Foundation. The Istanbul Municipality staff probably had no idea this would happen.
It is a shocking development for Gezi Park is one of Istanbul’s most iconic places. Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the area surrounding Gezi Park, including Taksim Square, has been the source of many discussions. The AKP has sought to redesign and redefine the symbolic role played by Taksim Square in Istanbul.
Millions of people from all over Turkey took to Taksim Square and Gezi Park to protest the government in 2013. As a result, those places served as iconic places in our social resistance history. It was so spectacular that beyond the protesters, people from across the country travelled to Istanbul to witness the events that took place on Taksim Square. Needless to say, the Gezi Park resistance occupies a special place in our collective memory. While the protesters sought prevent the construction of new buildings that would erase the park’s flora and fauna, the demonstrations turned into a widespread revolt against the government’s general policies.
The significance of Taksim Square is derived from the early days of the Turkish Republic, when political rulers back then decided to make it the heart of modern Turkey. As an example, the importance of Taksim was reflected in the fact that when Turkey’s military staged a coup in 1960, they erected a statue of a bayonet on the square. Those who protested against them also gathered in Taksim. It became the symbolic venue of Turkey’s leftist movement.
This recent history explains why the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to take over the area. The aim was to transform it into a symbol of their “new Turkey”. Numerous changes were made in the area during the past 20 years, whilst the AKP ruled the municipality of Istanbul. Those changes sparked raucous debates and protests. For instance, a new cultural center is being erected in the place of the Atatürk Cultural Center, a grand mosque is about to be completed on Taksim Square, the vehicle traffic was moved underground and the square itself was made pedestrian. Still, Gezi Park has remained unchanged.
A year and a half ago, Istanbul’s residents elected the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to rule over the municipality. Parks and squares matter to the current CHP-led administration. A current example is the park arrangement underneath the viaduct in Mecidiyeköy. The city’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, and his team had prepared a rearrangement of Taksim Square and Gezi Park and had asked the public’s opinion and participation in the decision-making process. Just as the work was about to commence, the government came up with a move and stripped the metropolitan municipality of the park’s ownership.
Seizing such an important and invaluable green area of the city and transferring its ownership to a questionable foundation is tragicomic.
Nobody knows anything about the so-called foundation. And though it has been inactive for hundreds of years, it now owns one of Turkey’s most valuable venues. Who are the executives of this foundation or who will be its future administrators? And what will they do with Gezi Park?
If Turkey weren’t so vulnerable to earthquakes and fault lines, and if this change were a mere legal reorganization that everybody accepted, the new owner of the park would probably leave its use to the municipality of Istanbul, sign a protocol with it. Yet one can predict that the foundation will refuse to cooperate with the municipality of Istanbul, which the governments regards as its arch-enemy and seeks to impede each move it makes.
The municipality of Istanbul has already declared it would file a lawsuit against the president’s decision. The municipality also announced it would complete the project to reorganize the park and its vicinity and that the court case would only result in a waste of time.
Like many similar foundations, the Sultan Beyazıt Han Foundation will want to convert Gezi Park into a building complex. Perhaps it will rent out the plot to markets, trade fairs and festivals that would impose an entrance fee.
Whatever happens, vengeful decisions to reshape Taksim Square and Gezi Park are likely to spark further protests and tension. This would only amplify the polarization that prevails in Turkish society. Besides, it would sadden those who are unable to react, those Istanbul residents who pass through Taksim, the people of Turkey who attribute colossal meanings and sentiments to the city.