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Infrastructure

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa Bulvari across from the Perpa wholesale complex upwards to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

As the summer temperatures rises, a few images of snow-dusted city-scapes that hint at the dynamics of a city …

Unlike my native New York, which — despite  falling victim to a recent epidemic of new high-rise apartment and office towers geared to the profits of real estate developers and the prerogatives of the well-heeled, many of them part-time residents  — remains a city of mostly late-19th- and early-20th-century brick structures, Istanbul, even with its plethora of centuries-old religious and secular monuments, is, in no small part, a city of concrete low-rise buildings and, more recently, of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and gated residential “communities.”

The views captured in the first and second photos in this post were taken from a one-time river valley, now the site of a multl-lane traffic thoroughfare, looking upward toward the neighborhood of Bomonti. The photos portray in miniature some of the features and processes that shape and call into question the futures of Istanbul and cities like it. Both photos captures Istanbul’s geography of heights and river valleys, with the more desirable locations on top and the least desirable at the bottom (this rooted in “ür”- concerns of rain- and waste-water drainage, air circulation, security, and  symbolism of dominance), with gentrification occurring literally from the top down.

“Landed-By-Night”

In the bottom halves of the photos are one- and two-story illegally-built squatters’ dwellings, in Turkish geçekondu, “landed-by-night,” in recognition of the regulations- and authorities-defying overnight speed and covertness with which they were built. Beginning a half-century ago, during a peak in population growth when housing was scarce and expensive, Geçekondu arose in Istanbul’s vacant lots and least desirable slopes as a grass-roots means of sheltering waves of poorer  new arrivals to the city.

Above the geçekondu, sited seemingly at random, are multistory cooperative and rental apartments built on the footprints of razed geçekondu — their sites amassed through buy-outs of squatters’-rights land titles ultimately granted to  geçekondu occupants in exchange for apartment units in buildings constructed on the footprints of their one-time illegal dwellings.

At the tops of the two photos are high-rises of skyscraper proportions. The upper left of the photo above reveals an office complex still under construction at the time  (note: these photos were taken in 2012. The same photo taken again today would contain ever more high-rises in its upper reaches). At the upper right of both photos, approaching completion, is the front-most of two adjacent twin “luxury” apartment towers with the unappetizing and dehumanizing, deadpan name of “Ant Hill Towers.” Because they are built on a downward slope, the twin high-rises of Ant Hill Towers are barely seem from the older, predominantly middle- and upper-scale neighborhoods above and also from along the Bosporus.  From Istanbul’s historic peninsula, however, Ant Hill Towers are a perpetual presence that overwhelms the skyline.

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Skyscrapers, Economies, Politics

Construction of high-rise office and apartment buildings has been a driver of the Turkish economy and a lucrative boondoggle for supporters of Turkey’s Prime Minister and his party and, as recent scandals alleged, maybe even for the Prime Minister himself. Through the filters of the cast of characters of my native New York, I sometimes see the Turkish Prime Minister as a cross between Tammany Hall’s Carmine De Sapio and ex-Mayors Rudolf Guliani and Michael Bloomberg (minus the latter’s bicycle lanes and bicycle rental programs and admittedly worthy tree-planting): i.e. cronyism plus misanthropy plus out-and-out pandering to the political and fund-raising support of real estate and construction interests.

Impacts of “Twin Towers” and the Labile Value of Views

Viewing Ant Hill Towers from a New York perspective also brings to mind … the Twin Towers of the belated World Trade Center — not from the perspective of the murderous destruction of the latter but from that of its conception and inception.  Peel away the undeniable tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the present-day cheesiness and carnival of “9/11″ museums and memorials, and one recalls New York’s World Trade Center as it was greeted upon its completion back in the 1960s: i.e. as a twin eyesore, an economic white-elephant that would take years to achieve a base-level of occupancy, and a burden upon the city’s infrastructure (water and sewage system, subway capacity, etc.).

It is my not-too-uneducated guess that Ant Hill Towers, not unlike the World Trade Center, was designed and built as a structure in and of itself and not as part of a city, as a vertical suburb set in the urban core. I  also assume that little if any attention was given to its effects on water/waste-water or power grids, nor to resulting surface water run-off, traffic congestion, pedestrian flows, or impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, let only on the city’s aesthetics.  What was attended to, however, was the profit potential of building on under-utilized, centrally-located land and the marketing of princely ownership of views.  Views, however, can be  ephemeral and short-lived . The more structures that rise to exploit them, the more that views become obstructed and have their value undermined.  Given time and the mushrooming of their like, views from mundane high-rises soon become views of other mundane high-rises, unwelcome mirrors rather than princely expanses.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights of Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air.  I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.

I took the photo almost 15 years ago.  Where is the the street vendor today?  I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul.  I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large  prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma,  a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality.  Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level.  Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge spanning the waters of the Golden Horn; Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film. Click on image to enlarge.

The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul.  The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.

The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned.  Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul.  (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)

An infrastructural question: Will seaside boardwalks survive the 21st century?

A look at the New York region suggests that they might not.  The resurgence of nature over urban artifice during last year’s Hurricane Sandy revealed anew the importance of regeneration and/or conservancy of natural coastlines.  The flooding that devastated nearby Long Beach on the south shore of Long Island, for example, would have been avoided or minimized had natural sand dunes still been in place that were removed early in the twentieth century to clear the way for apartments with oceanside frontage and the construction of a magnificent miles-long boardwalk promenade.  This year’s fire to the south of New York City on New Jersey’s Atlantic shore owed its rapid spread to the very materials that give boardwalks their name: wood-plank paving.   And, yet, boardwalks remain urban necessities.

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011. (Fuji X100)

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011.(Fuji X100.)  In the foreground: the characteristic herringbone wood planking of New York City boardwalks and a lone dented trash barrel painted in the signature green of the NYC Dept. of Parks.

From fashion to survival

Boardwalks are products of the interstice of 19th-century romanticism and 19th-century urbanity, in which nature was a picturesque backdrop to be seen but not touched, to be witnessed — but with dry and unsoiled shoes — from the safety and elegance of seaside promenades and beach-front hotels and restaurants. In the context of the lives of millions of ordinary New Yorkers — this writer and two generations of his forebears included — the boardwalk at Coney Island was and remains central to urban survival.   Like Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Coney Island boardwalk from Brighton Beach past Coney Island to Seagate gives New Yorkers who lack the means to vacation or to travel afar access to fresh air and a refuge from urban congestion and searing summer heat.

Outlets to the sea

The Coney Island boardwalk was built ninety years ago, a time when the farmlands of Brooklyn were being paved over en masse for the construction of seemingly endless expanses of working- and lower-middle-class apartments for immigrants and their children fleeing cramped, degrading housing conditions in lower Manhattan.  Their flight followed the paths of newly built subways lines, trajectories that gave also gave shape to the schemes of real estate speculators.   The continuation of subway lines to the seaside, and thus to Coney Island, afforded the urban working poor an easy outlet to the beach and to walks and leisurely socializing on surfaces less oppressive than urban concrete, and to sounds less intrusive than the ever-present rattling of horse carts and, later, the roar of automobiles.

Changing numbers, changing faces

Over the last century, usage of the Coney Island boardwalk has fluctuated in parallel with the fortunes and changing demographics of its immediate hinterland.  (A lengthy subject that I will save for future posts.)  The apogee of the boardwalk’s crowds and popularity was in the 1930s and early 1940s.  A decline set in after the Second World War and continued through 1970s.  A revival was sparked in the late-1970s, in part by the settlement in Brighton Beach of tens of thousands of mostly Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union.  Over the past decades, the faces seen, and accents and languages heard, along the boardwalk have changed from those of Jews, Irish, and Italians — once amongst the dominant ethnic groups in New York — to those of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, Russians, Central Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, and Chinese.  What has remained constant is the precarious place of boardwalk denizens towards the lower rungs of New York City’s housing and economy.

From infrastructure to serendipity

During the 1930s and early-40s, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the mayor-ship of Fiorello LaGuardia, investment in and maintenance of public infrastructure, both physical and social, was seen as a core task of government – - a means for collectively facilitating the lives and advancement of all individuals comprising our society and, not least, ensuring social peace in the process.  Parks, beaches, and boardwalks included, were parts of the mix.

America's shoreline: John"s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

America’s shoreline: John”s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

“Fast forward” to the years of New York as financial center and the Bloomberg years, the age of a real-estate-development-driven economy, increasing unequal distribution of wealth, and “Manhattanization” (a new phrase coined to describe the phenomenon of a economically and demographically variegated city or part thereof suddenly turning into a preserve of those at the upper income levels, this a la the fate of much of Manhattan since the start of the millennium).

Over the last decade, social and physical infrastructure and their maintenance are increasingly surrendered to private enterprises or left to the serendipitous voluntarism of “public private partnerships.”   One of the results has been the filleting of the public funds for parks maintenance and the establishment in place thereof of “public-private partnerships” in the form of “conservancies” linked to individual properties.  The outcome has been predictable.  Manhattan’s Central Park, the city’s highest profile park facility, flanked by three of New York’s wealthiest district is governed and funded by a conservation with an immense endowment and budget.  Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Conservancy struggles to cover costs and many of the parks facilities still dependent on filleted public funds languish.

“Let them walk on concrete:”

Wood paved boardwalks splinter, warp, and rot, they are maintenance intensive and require periodic resurfacing.  In the spirit of Marie Antoinette advising the bread-starved poor of pre-revolutionary Paris  “… let them eat cake,”  the Bloomberg era’s prescription for the patrons of the Brighton Beach-Coney Island boardwalk appeared to be: “… let them walk on concrete.”   A couple of years ago, large sections of the boardwalk surface were stripped of their wood and replaced by prefabricated modular sections of light-colored concrete with surfaces crudely textured to give the impression of wood grain.  The modular sections were poorly leveled and sloppily abutted.

The immediate reaction?  Small crowds of boardwalk denizens gathered in amazement and  Read More

An anchored boat converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy restaurant, Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013.  Note the kitchen topped with jaunty chimney  perched precariously in the after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100)  Click to enlarge.

An one-time small urban ferry converted to a fish sandwich and fried anchovy (hamsi) restaurant, moored on the shore of the Golden Horn, Hasköy, Istanbul, 2013. Note the kitchen and its jaunty chimney perched precariously in an after-fitted poop-deck. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Further to a previous post on Gezi Park, Istanbul street vendors, etc.

One of the concepts that has stuck with me from my long-ago graduate training is in the form of a concisely worded dictum that continues to prove its veracity over and again in scores of cities worldwide.  I’ve forgotten the precise wording and source, but the  paraphrase that follows is faithful to original: “The economy of a city is dependent on a continuous supply of declining housing stock.”

Hirschman

The concept, it turns out, comes from the works of economist Albert 0. Hirschman.  There has been a recent revival of interests in Hirschman’s life, professional accomplishments, and thought.  The publication earlier this year of a biography of Hirschman brought in its wake articles and reviews in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.  The course of Hirschman’s life — childhood in Berlin, anti-Nazi activist, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, smuggler of Jewish refugees out of Vichy France, victim of the McCarthy era in the US, specialist in international development, resident scholar at Princeton — is as fascinating as his economics, the latter a non-ideological pragmatism, literary rather than econometric in method, that side-steps master plans to find opportunities in seeming negativities and value in seeming dysfunctions.

The Power of Decline

Declining housing (and commercial) stock provides shelter for those on the way up and those on the way down.  It enables the solvency of those who do heavy-lifting and work at the edges of economies, those very people without whom neither industrial not service economies can function.  It provides affordable locales for cultural renewal and technological innovation.  It provides space for new sectors and enables older sectors — and the employment they provide and skills they preserve — to survive.  It contributes to the social interaction and proximity to others who are different than one’s self that is central to democracy. For generations, the agglomerations of flexible, high value-added, small enterprises that grew around the entrepot functions of cities such as New York had been dependent on re-purposed inexpensive physical plant.

Afterthoughts: From Istanbul to Harlem

  • Apropos of the recent protests in Istanbul, as treated in a number of past posts below, opportunities for incremental reuse contribute far more to social and political cohesion than do the seizing of public space and the razing of viable structures and neighborhoods to make way for massive development projects driven by political cronyism and the financial self-interests of investors and design-driven megalomania of architects.
  • As we see from the photo above, ample supplies of underutilized urban coastline also contribute to the mix of seeming negatives that Hirschman would encourage looking at afresh — likewise with ample supplies of declining boat stock!
  • Last, for a few words on the negative impact of sudden “upscaling” of a a viable and creative neighborhood many of the strengths of which was rooted in its state of perpetual decline, click here for a piece I wrote some years ago mourning the closing of the old Reliable’s Cafeteria and its upscale sister, Copeland’s Restaurant, on West 145th St. in New York City’s Harlem.
Derelict fountain, Galata, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, Ilford HP5, scan of print.)  Click to enlarge.

Derelict fountain, Galata, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, Ilford HP5, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Further to my previous post on water, fountains, et. al.

Processes of decline and abandonment

Two decades ago, I began to photograph the historic water fountains (çeșme) and water kiosks (sebil) of Istanbul.  I began, not with the grand and monumental, but with obscure and abandoned — those in backstreets, alleyways, and courtyards, functioning and non-functioning fragments of legacy urban infrastructure, overlooked by scholars,  their features surrendered to the elements, decay, and neglect. The forgotten origins and gradual disappearance of many of these structures seemed symbolic of larger urban processes of decline and abandonment — processes that are as central to the functioning and continuity of cities as are restoration and (re)development.

Fountain, seemingly from late-18th-century spolia, Zincirli Han, Kapalı Çarşıı, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, Ilford XP2, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Fountain, seemingly from late-18th-century spolia, Zincirli Han, Kapalı Çarşı, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, Ilford XP2, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Aesthetic rather than documentary

At the time, my approach to fountains and kiosks aesthetic rather than documentary.  My eye was drawn to single planes as much as to entire structures, to textures as much as to decorative elements, to materials and much as to settings, and to the marks of time as much as to original appearances.  The joy of finding in the focusing screens of my Rolleiflexes the tensions and calming balances inherent to subject matter was paramount.

Frontal detail of the early-eighteenth-century Iskele (quayside) fountain, Uskudar, Istanbul, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, Ilford HP5, scan of print). Click to enlarge.

Frontal detail of the early-eighteenth-century Iskele (quayside) fountain, Uskudar, Istanbul, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, Ilford HP5, scan of print). Click to enlarge.

A vendor of parakeets dwarfed by a late-Ottoman fountain, vicinity of Gedik Paşa Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

A vendor of parakeets dwarfed by a late-Ottoman fountain, vicinity of Gedik Paşa Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Like some cities, Istanbul arose because of water.  Like all cities, Istanbul is sustained by water.

Istanbul is situated at the juncture of strategic waterways central, since the dawn of history, to world trade.  The narrow channel of the Bosporus divides European from Asian Istanbul and links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara  and, beyond it, via the Dardanelles, to the Aegean and Mediterranean.  River channels flowing into these waterway shaped the geography of Istanbul and, for centuries, the placid inlet of the Golden Horn provided the city with the advantage of a sheltered, defensible harbor.

Fountains and Taksim

Istanbul is fed by a water distribution system that has grown incrementally over two millennia.  Until modern times, aqueducts conveyed water from the west and north into city where it was stored in reservoirs and cisterns and delivered to end users via neighborhood fountains endowed by legacies and pious foundations.  Hundreds of such fountains survive until today.  Some are monumental, others pedestrian; some function, others not; some have been grandly restored, others forgotten or subjected to Gerry-built repairs.  (Taksim Square, the site of recent demonstrations , derives its name — literally “branch” — from its past role as a distribution point for water brought by aqueduct from the lakes and forests of the Istanbul’s Black Sea coast).

Infrastructural Tourism

Back in May, I was visited in Istanbul by the family of a former client/colleague, a specialist in the funding and evaluation of infrastructure and infrastructural projects and an expert in the fields of fresh and waste water.  The thrust of our day together was to note the features of the layers of infrastructure — including Ottoman-era fountains — that have served Istanbul over centuries past and during its ten-fold growth in population during the twentieth.  We referred to our itinerary as “infrastructural tourism.”  Alas, we cannot call this phrase our own. Infrastructural tourism appears already to be underway, albeit searching for its own content and method, as per this report at Design Observer.

Marchers approaching Gezi Park from Osman Bey and Harbiye; Istanbul, early-June, 2013. In the center, the uncompleted open trench for an automobile underpass under and through Taksim Square, the main element in the road widening project that initially sparked the Gezi Park occupation. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

Marchers approaching Gezi Park from Osman Bey and Harbiye; Istanbul, early-June, 2013. In the center, the uncompleted open trench for an automobile underpass under and through Taksim Square, the main element in the road widening project that initially sparked the Gezi Park occupation. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

During the Gezi Park occupation, marchers from the direction of Harbiye and the residential neighborhoods beyond it appeared to be more diverse in age and in walks-of-life than those marching from the night-spot-filled side-streets and central promenade of Istiklal Caddesi.  This past Sunday, such diversity was augmented by the large turnout for a lesbian and gay march to Taksim and Gezi Park.

A Road to Nowhere?

By itself, the Turkish government’s plan to shunt traffic under and past Taksim Square might indeed lessen vehicular congestion, thus freeing this iconic location from dominance by motor vehicle traffic.  In conjunction with the plan to replace all of Taksim Square and Gezi Park with a massive complex of shopping mall, mosque, and fantasy reconstruction of a 19th-century military barracks, however, the underpass will instead deliver more automobile traffic into the urban core, a further step toward transforming a vital, unplanned, dense, “legacy” urban agglomeration into just another suburb.

There Is No There There”

Had the early-twentieth-century American expatriate writer and aesthete Gertrude Stein still been alive, and had she visited Istanbul this month and last, she no doubt would have joined the protests at Taksim and Gezi Park and almost certainly would have attended the recent lesbian and gay march.

Nearly a century ago, describing the seemingly charming town of Sausaliito, north of San Francisco, Stein is said to have quipped: “There is no there there.”  In Istanbul, by giving primacy to the automobile and the development of giant office and residential towers and suburban-type mall complexes, the powers-that-be are compromising pedestrian flows and traditional street life, thus contributing to a future in which, without doubt, there will be almost “… no there there.”

“Seventy-Two Suburbs in Search of a City”

American writer and humorist Dorothy Parker, a contemporary of Stein, once described the megalopolis Los Angeles as “… seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”  The present near-dysfunctional state of greater Los Angeles provides a cautionary tale for Istanbul as it continues its far-flung expansion and  conversion into a near endless checkerboard of malls, office parks, and gated residential “communities” all interconnected by automobile traffic.

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