Gezi Park: Street Vendors, Vanishing Roots of Urban Economies and Urban Democracy

Köfteci. A street vendor of grilled köfte sandwiches, Gezi Park, early-June 2012. (Fuji X100). (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Köfteci. A street vendor preparing and selling  grilled köfte sandwiches, Gezi Park, early-June 2012. (Fuji X100). (Click on photo to enlarge.)

During the weeks it was extant, the Gezi Park encampment was organized and disciplined.  A committee of participating organizations put political differences far enough aside to ensure provision of essential services — sanitary, medical, and emergency.  Volunteers cooked and served in cafeteria-style kitchens well stocked with donated provisions.
Street Vendors
In addition to the means served to those encamped in the Gazi Park, the dense concentration of protestors, well-wishers, and the curious  attracted scores of ordinary street vendors.  Many such vendors were of types traditional to the streets of Istanbul — sellers of köfte, of  rice topped with shredded chicken, of hot boiled corn, and of circular bread rolls dusted with toasted sesame seeds (semit); others represented fast responses to the one-off needs of protesters.  The latter hawked Turkish flags and portraits of Atatürk, t-shirts emblazoned with slogans of protest, and simple painter’s masks and cheap swimming goggles, both passed off as protection against tear gas.  Beverage vendors did brisk businesses selling ice-cold bottled water and — rarely seen on the streets of Istanbul — beer.  Indeed, in the initial days of the occupation and demonstrations, polishing off a bottle of beer, as well as providing refreshment, was a principled statement of opposition to a regime intent furthering a sectarian-driven war to limit alcohol consumption. In the end, Gezi Park occupiers eventually banned beer vendors, this to disprove  the Turkish Prime Minister’s allegations of nightly drunkenness and debauchery in the protestors’ encampment.  According to one report, at least one beer vendor put up violent resistance to such expulsion, stabbing a protester in the process.)
Revolutionary melon slices for a revolutionary market. The slogan scratched onto the watermelon: "Taksim, the people's revolution is coming." But, no matter how progressive, red, and tasty such melon slices may have been, the going price -- five lira per serving -- was counter-revolutionary at best! (Fuji X100) (Click on image to enlarge).

Revolutionary melon slices for a revolutionary market. The slogan scratched onto the watermelon: “Taksim, the people’s revolution is on.” But, no matter how red and tasty such melon slices may have been, the going price — five lira per serving — was counter-revolutionary at best! (Fuji X100) (Click on image to enlarge).

Tendrils of Urban Economy
Functionally and symbolically, Istanbul’s street vendors are the very antitheses of the shopping mall /mosque / reconstructed barracks complex slated to rise on the open footprint of what is now Taksim Square, Gezi Park, and the Atatürk Cultural Center.
Street vendors are at the root-level of Istanbul’s economy and its networks for delivering goods, adding value, and provisioning the city.  They make  affordable goods and means available on whim to people on the go and gives customers cause to break stride and linger — something that authoritarian regimes invariably dislike. Street vendors take up slack  between market stalls, neighborhood shops, and even chain stores and supermarkets.  To borrow a phrase from the worlds of telecommunications and infrastructure, street vendors provide the “last mile” of retail distribution.  Not least, in the course of meeting demand, street vendor operations create immediate employment,  instant entrepreneurship, and long-shots at upward mobility. 
The End of an Ecosystem
Over the last two-thirds of a century, the population of Istanbul has increased almost ten-fold, leading to a expansion of urban sprawl almost one hundred kilometers eastward and westward of its traditional urban core. This new mega-Istanbul is one of disbursed functions — of office parks, of gated residential complexes, and of shopping malls at which chain and franchise operations with pockets deep enough to support high rents have replaced individual merchants, both brick-and-mortar-based or cart-based. And, as automobile traffic necessary for shuttling between far-flung sites of disbursed functions has replaced foot travel and even inter-modal public transportation, the compact streams of slow-moving pedestrians that long-supported street vendors have disbursed.
Bringing the Suburbs to the City
The Turkish government’s plan for a giant shopping mall complex on the site of Taksim and Gezi Park will bring the suburbs to the central city.  In addition to replacing a cultural center with a religious center and the city’s open air forum for expression of ideas with a replica of a military barracks, the imposition of such shopping malls on the urban threatens the last reserves of small trade, open space, and urban foot traffic and lingering, an combination that has incubated democracy since the age Socrates and his search for wisdom in the agora
And street vendors?  From what I understand, there is a freeze on the issuance of vendor licenses in most sub-municipalities of Istanbul. From what I have witnessed, police are showing greater vigilance in prompting illegal vendors to move on.  What is certain, however, is that street vendors will not be welcome in the halls, atria, and “food courts” of the planned mall at Taksim.
My reaction? To rush out to my favorite street cart for a plate of chicken, chickpeas, and rice.  And, if only it was still winter, I would end the day with a glass of boza (fermented millet) ladled from the pail of a wandering vendor.
Afterthought
A nod to the memory of my Uncle, Moishe Liebowitz (Murray Lewis), who, from his fifteenth year until he joined the Marines, rose at dawn most workdays to wheel a wooden pushcart laden with fruit over the Williamsburg Bridge to Lower Manhattan.
From köfte to nuts, as it were. Three street vendor operations, Gezi Park, eary-June 2013.  Forgive the blur -- slow shutter speed, f2 thus narrow plane of focus, moving nut-vendor cart, and moving photographer (Fuiji X100) (Click on image to enlarge.
From köfte to nuts, as it were. Three street vendor operations, just outside Gezi Park, eary-June 2013. Forgive the blur — slow shutter speed, shallow depth of field, moving nut-vendor cart … and moving photographer. (Fuiji X100) (Click on image to enlarge).
6 comments
  1. Sibel said:

    Street vendors are definitely important part of Turkish Economy. I agree that things are changing. However, street vendors are not vanishing . Profile of vendors are changing. At new sides of Istanbul, it is easy to see middle class women selling sandwiches at the back of their cars during early hours of working days. Other new approach, traditional street vendor profiles are trying to get into business plazas through working people contacts. Street vendors are updating the service by giving door to door delivery to plaza people. Sibel

  2. Thanks, Sibel. This is indeed a change worth looking at, especially as, like it or not, large parts of the economy are indeed migrating the the urban edge and into office parks. I’ve also noticed that, outside of the traditional urban core,carts are being superseded, carts are superseded by cars. As close in as Piyale Pasa and Bomonti, I’ve noticed parked vans outfitted as kofte and sandwich vendors. If only there were boza trucks!

  3. Sibel said:

    I prefer Salep 🙂 Let’s hope that vendors get more creative, have a stand for zeytinyağlı büfe (olive oil vegetables) , even sushi, lakerda .

  4. I’ll join you on the Salep, but let’s leave out the Sushi!

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