Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul. An iconic urban promenade through which millions of pedestrians pass each week. Street musicians huddle along its edges, polished and amateur, youthful and worn. The music of some causes passersby to break stride, that of others attracts small crowds and elicits donations of coins and even banknotes.
Who are the musicians? The business card of the man portrayed in the photo below contained but a phone number and a single word: Kemanci, player of the Keman — a statement of identity and essence clearer and more revealing than any given or family name.
Two Photographic Moods
The photo above is a literal rendering, with strong blacks and whites. The photo below emphasizes grays and was shaped using the digital equivalents of what in the days of physical darkrooms was called dodging and burning, the channeling and blocking of light between negative and paper. Black/white digital processing is both a blessing and a curse: the absence of the physical properties of film and paper and of the effects of chemical processing, broadens possibilities but also eliminates worthy constraints and renders mute a valuable language of expression.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)