Defending the City in Istanbul

For those of us who were born after 1980, the experience of Istanbul has been through reconstruction. I cannot think of a neighborhood, or even a street I walked on without a construction site embedded. Transformation and development has been constant and exceedingly massive. According to Tolga Islam in Current Urban Discourse, Urban Transformation and Gentrification in Istanbul, the 2000s mark a scale and speed unmatched by previous “development’ projects:

“This is best exemplified by the construction of new shopping malls in every possible empty space: the number of shopping centres has increased around sevenfold, reaching 72 since the start of the decade, with an additional 49 under construction and due to be completed by the end of 2010.”

Today, shopping malls are a major investment avenue for developers. The reconstruction of Cercle d’Orient building which houses Emek Cinema on Istiklal Avenue in the district of Beyoglu is a part of this larger picture. Emek Cinema, therefore, became the catalyst of a growing right to the city movement Istanbul.

After a legal battle, in December of 2012 the renewal project of the Cercle d’Orient building was approved by a local court. This year, organized under the slogan “Emek Bizim, Istanbul Bizim” (“Emek is ours, Istanbul is ours) there have been several demonstrations two of which are important to note here:

On March 31, the closed Emek Cinema was occupied for a short time. A video titled “A Diary of an Occupation” highlights the important moments during this demonstration. A banner that was hung on the building lists the neighborhoods that are currently marked as renewal sites indicating that while the recent protests have focused mainly on the cinema, the movement is one that is discontent of the urban restructuring  projects affecting historic districts of Istanbul, primarily Beyoglu and Fatih, is present and growing.

On April 7th, another demonstration occurred with the attendance of Costa-Gavras who was in Istanbul to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Istanbul Film Festival.



This demonstration was dispersed by the police with water and tear gas.


These demonstrations and the police response bring to the forefront discussion of who owns the city.

Beginning in 2005, legislation on urban planning and conservation was altered in such a way that made plans for a total revamping of the city, especially targeting districts with historical and cultural artifacts which not only attract tourism but also help make up an image of the city that is welcoming and open to new market opportunities. A renewal law (no. 5366) titled “Usage of Timeworn Historical and Cultural Real Property with Restoration, Protection” (dubbed ‘the Beyoğlu law’) was passed by the Turkish national assembly in 2005. This law allows the local governance, the district municipality, the authority to expropriate any site which they suppose carries historical value and implement renewal projects. This legislation along with the “Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property” (Law no. 5266) which was passed in 2004, amend significantly the 1983 law with the same name “Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property” (Law no. 2863) by redefining renewal and conservation and repositioning power and authority in governance. Furthermore, in 2010 City Transformation and Development Areas item of the municipality legislation (item 73) gave sole authority to the district and city municipalities to declare areas that fall under this definition and removed the ability of individual property owners to deny access to their land or other property which may be located in these areas. Previously, even one vote against the transformation was enough to halt the process. However, as Tuna Kuyucu reflects in Double Displacement: Planning out the poor, this legislative move making the majority vote sufficient to begin construction “revised the existing legal basis of urban transformation and renewal to enable such a massive remaking of the city’s housing stock.” These legislations in combination with the most recent “Redevelopment of Areas under Disaster Risk” Law no. 6306, which passed on May 16th 2012, prepare the city for a complete and speedy restructuring while intensifying and diversifying the capital generating projects for both state and private developers. Thus establishing the conditions for a ‘city without limits’, while inciting a dynamic resistance gathering in defense of the city and its people.