The ideal real estate “development”project: A sidewalk shoeshine stand on one the main streets of Kasım Paşa, the mostly religious, mostly working class quarter of Istanbul that numbers amongst its better known sons Turkey’s present prime minister, Recıp Tayip Erdoğan. The structure comprises a minimal intrusion into public space. Its form is dictated by its function and by the materials at hand. The business itself is geared to the needs and flows of the pedestrians traffic that passes it. The Romany origins of the proprietor point to a wealth of lessons about urban sustainability that remain to be learned from the past and present roles of urban Roma. More on this in a future post …
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.”
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.
Some “meta-reporting” further to my recent post entitled Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo …
Kudos and “Great Expectorations”
Over the past two weeks Istanbul Conflicts From Afar received some attention and even kudos. On July 10, WordPress (the hosts of Bubkes.Org) featured the post in their “Freshly Pressed” listing of read-worthy blog activity. On July 20, Doc Searls of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the law school of Harvard University included it in a string of quotes summarizing a selection of my postings to date. More important, Doc tracked down the US Public Radio broadcast (“Great Expectorations”) that revealed the suspect origins of the malicious and overused “spat upon Vietnam vet” urban legend. To read the full transcript of the the broadcast click here.
Linux Journal and Working Class New York
By coincidence, only a few days before Doc posted his review of Bubkes.Org, I received an email from the urban, water, and infrastructure expert mentioned in my post Istanbul: Water, Fountains, Taksim, and Infrastructural Tourism. In his email, the expert included this link to another mention of me by Searls in a 2008 piece for Linux journal. In the 2008 article, Doc referred to a posting to my old weblog Hakpaksak in which I quoted from Joshua Freeman’s excellent book Working Class New York on the appeal of what remains of the unique character, ethos, and capabilities of New York City as it was prior to the rise and fall of the financial sector. The collision of the New York of heavy lifting and manual skills with the New York of trading floors and computer screens remains for me a subject of ongoing observation that colors my portrayals, written and photographic, of cities my native New York, Istanbul, and my very own private bench-scale urban laboratory of sorts: Sofia, Bulgaria.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Antecedent to my previous post: In the winter of 1996-1997 the Bulgarian Lev plummeted, store shelves emptied, and the prices of food and utilities soared beyond the means of most people. Weeks of protests ensued.
In Bulgaria, I have learned, nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. “in principle”).
A Government Resigns
During my last visit to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, back in February and early-March of this year, demonstrators poured into the center of the city to join marches protesting over-inflated energy charges, these resulting from a cynical game of arbitrage and manipulation of subsidies by insiders. The demonstrations differed from the norm in that, this time, the majority of the marchers were from the Soviet-bloc-era housing developments at the fringes of Sofia — low income people, thus, caught in a squeeze between minimal incomes, lack of savings, and the soaring prices of inelastic monthly expenses.
The February and March demonstrations led to the cavalier resignation of the right-of-center government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a Communist-era one-time state security heavy and a recent mayor of Sofia whose shaved skull, protruding jaw, and characteristic bombast are reminiscent of Mussolini. “Brother Boyko,” as he sometimes is called, simply threw up his hands and called for elections, thus, in effect, abandoning the country and dumping the entire mess into someone else’s lap.
Government by “Strange Bedfellows”
As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest: “ … misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows;” likewise the coupling that comprises the government formed to replace that of Brother Boyko. Current coalition partners include the BSP (successors to the old Bulgarian Communist Party) plus two small parties that survive by playing the roles of coalition-brokers: the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party originally founded to defend Bulgaria’s million-strong Turkish and Muslim minority against state and social oppression) and ATAKA (an out and out neo-nazi party whose platform and appeal is based on anti-Semitism and hatred and disenfranchisement of Bulgaria’s large populations of Gypsies and Turks).
One of the first acts of the new coalition was inexplicable, even by Bulgarian standards: The appointment of an oligarch with known ties to organized crime as head of the country’s national security agency. In response, one month ago, crowds took to the streets of Sofia and of cities and towns elsewhere in Bulgaria in daily protest marches. Within ten days, the appointment was withdrawn just as inexplicably as it been made in the first place. The demonstrations, however, have continued.
And this brings us back to my opening paragraph above: the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be.
One of my local interlocutors, a successful medical practitioner, explains that the demonstrations are an uprising of the new middle class. Another — an energetic and articulate young independent consultant — adds that the demonstrations represent the entry of her generation into the politic arena. And yet, when I visit the demonstrations, what I notice are embittered folks, in large part pensioners and the seemingly un- or under-employed, as well as a sprinkling of deadbeats swilling from liter bottles of beer or wearing t-shirts decorated with iron crosses or other iconography of the know-nothing right. The signs I read and slogans I hear at the demonstrations are mostly rants against communism; the communist period, by the way, having ended one year short of a quarter of a century ago. A sprinkling of English-language signs, featuring liberal use of words such as “motherfuckers” and “bastards,” reveals the tenor of discourse.
A friend of mine who is a close observer of of local Facebook activity and print and broadcast media offers another take, i.e. that the protests have offered the media-savvy a low-risk opportunity to engage in “reputation management” and profile themselves as a new class of courageous leadership. She also suggests that the demonstrations are likely to be used by Brother Boyko as a pretense for a magnanimous return to power. Another friend — a former communist and present-day socialist, who has always had the integrity to speak out against the abuses of both parties — regrets that recriminations and shapeless discontent seem to be the language and output of-the-day of the Sofia protests, rather than a focus on concrete issues or the formation of a sustainable new opposition, this unlike contemporaneous events in Istanbul (see my previous post on issues and aspersions). A third friend, a woman who has worked in the private sector in Bulgaria from the very first days of post-communist “market” economy, emphasizes that no party directly confronts the core issue of a divorcing government and the economy-at-large from organized crime.
Tomatoes, “Feta,” Schnapps, and Comments
As to me, I’m yet sure what I think — except, of course, not to trust my first impressions. My next step, thus, will be to get myself back to thinking Balkan. So, for the coming days at least, I’ll simply continue to enjoy the cool weather and refreshing periodic thunder storms and lose myself in the excellent local tomatoes, “feta,” and schnapps. While I do so, please feel free to post your comment(s), whether in English or Bulgarian.