Urban cleansing

June 7, 2012 | Cities, Infrastructure, Istanbul, Markets, Restaurants, Sidewalks, Traffic jams, Turkey, Walkability

By:David A. Smith


Even as Turkey has announced it will be embarking on dramatic urban regeneration, the government is also shaking up the established order of informality in street usages, and that, as reported by my friend Constanze Letsch in The Guardian, results in immediate displacement and disruption of the economic cryptobiotica:


Bar and restaurant owners forced to remove tables and chairs can replace them with a ’70cm balcony’, the municipality says. So far the costly compromise has not proved popular. Photograph: www.radikal.com


It is the tourism heart of Istanbul, a cosmopolitan district packed with bars, clubs, cafes and restaurants which has always been a magnet for the al fresco diner. But outdoor tables are becoming harder to find in Beyoglu –


Beyoglu street, before and after cleanup


Beyoglu (pronounced bye-oh-loo) is the old Pera, the European enclave across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, the old Byzantium and Constantinople.


Pera is the settlement north of the Golden Horn (the east-west estuary at top)


It’s enormously hilly.  The streets wind almost incomprehensibly.  Street signs are infrequent, and anyone driving throughout Beyoglu is guaranteed to get lost, not once but multiple times.  (At least, I’ve never navigated the neighborhood without getting lost.)


– since the authorities inexplicably ordered many of them to be removed.


People used to sit here


Though Connie’s a good person (who did a great interview of me), absolutely on the right side of Tarlabasi’s slow extinction, in fact it isn’t inexplicable.  It may just be an explanation that Connie and others do not like.


According to the Beyoglu municipality, there were 1,066 complaints from people not being able to pass between restaurants, and 868 formal complaints about rubbish left out on the street.


Who owns the street?  Who owns the sidewalk?  That question is not as easy to answer as one thinks – I remember Jockin Arputham of India’s National Slum Dwellers Federation chewing out residents whose shop displays had spilled onto his co-operative’s sidewalks. 


Local eateries say they are losing money and Turkish media report that the measure, brought in at the end of July, has resulted in 2,000 staff losing their jobs.


Streets are for the passage of vehicles; sidewalks are for the passage of people.  If either are overcrowded with stationary establishments, even if those establishments are temporary, then the city’s connectivity – which is key to its economic lifeblood – is disrupted, in just the same way your circulation will be disrupted if you have blocked capillaries.  So the visible losses of business by the street-using merchants have to be offset against the invisible losses of jobs and businesses that occur when it takes twice as long to cross the city as it should.


It is not hard to see why. In the usually bustling district, a sign outside a bar advertises cheap tequila shots and beer, but the tables inside are empty.


While I personally find the lure of street-side dining questionable – one trades cigarette smoke and bar noise for exhaust fumes and truck noise – many people like the liveliness of the urban parade going by.


Wide sidewalks, wide streets: Paris


Mehmet Papatya has been working there for seven years and lives above the bar.


Live-work structures and flats over shops are characteristic of both informal neighborhoods and effective bustling city neighborhoods.  They should be zoned in, and encouraged.


“We pay 6,000 Turkish lira [£2,110] every month for the space alone,” he said,” and we need to have tables outside.”


In other words, Mr. Papatya is saying that his ability to pay rent is predicated on his ability to collect revenue from space he does not pay for – the sidewalk.  Which means further than if the sidewalk were taken out of his revenue equation, then not only his business, but also any successor business occupying that space, would be unable to pay that rent.  Thus the market rent would fall, swiftly.


In short, it’s not his business capturing the sidewalk’s value, but his landlord’s.


“Our landlord will either grant us a rent reduction, or we will have to close shop.”


But unfortunately for Mr. Papatya, the first casualty of the drop in value isn’t his landlord, but his business:


Four tables have been taken away by the municipal police – without prior warning, according to Papatya.


The market is in fact adjusting fast:


“Nobody here pays rent at the moment.”


All over Beyoglu, prices are being readjusted:


Mehmet Aktas, who works in a restaurant, said: “We used to have 18 tables with room for 40 to 50 people. Now we have three tables left. Five out of eight employees are on unpaid leave.”


Like many restaurants in Beyoglu they have seen their revenues fall by almost 80%.

Aktas said the municipality’s policy would affect a broader local economy: “We buy from fishermen, butchers and greengrocers.”


He’s certainly right about that.  An economy is interdependent, and there will be ripple effects.


Rumour has it that the ‘table operations’ were initiated by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose motorcade got stuck because of urban furniture before Ramadan.


It’s not nice to block the prime minister’s motorcade


Though the rumor smacks of imperial pique (Julius Caesar banned all wheeled traffic in Rome during daylight hours, and Hadrian created the world’s first congestion zone by limiting carts entering the city), it has an underlying legitimacy.


Paris has sidewalk cafes … but Paris has wide sidewalks, and wide boulevards.


So nice we cleared out the rabbit warren, don’t you agree, my dear?


In cities, cars and people live an uneasy coexistence.  Cities work only when there is ample room to hide the cars out of sight.  In some cities, the people so swarm that the streets are virtually impassable – Cairo and Mumbai come to mind – and it can take an hour to go two miles.  The loss to economic productivity, and to national competitiveness, is enormous. 


It’s one thing for poor cities like Mumbai and Cairo to be traffic-choked – quite another when it is Istanbul, which is bidding to be Europe’s gateway to the Middle East. 


Another solution: make some streets pedestrian only


The city’s infrastructure is massively out of date, and Erdogan’s alleged pique reveals a practical truth – the parts of a city that will flourish economically are those one can commute efficiently to.  At the Istanbul Gyoder conference where I spoke, I heard a panelist claim that Haussmann’s famous boulevards, which today are seen as part of Paris’s walkability, were built in the 1850s-1860s to ‘clean out’ the medieval streets which had nourished and sheltered the Anarchists and Communists who had led the 1848 uprisings around Europe.  That’s very interesting.


The better to run police vehicles through?


Part of urban infrastructure is of course public transportation, which temporarily eases the automotive crunch but doesn’t eliminate it.  And public transport too is an expensive investment in infrastructure, made more expensive in a topographically challenged city like Istanbul, with its combination of hills, streams, and straits.  Today Istanbul has a funicular, a light rail system, a subway, and myriad buses and trains – and yet it is jammed with cars.


Taksim in the evening


(I did say that the explanation becomes more persuasive the more one reflects upon it.)


One possible solution offered by the municipality is the “70cm balcony” that can be added outside –


Seventy centimeters is about 25 inches, barely enough for one line of tables.  So we have a clash of uses, a fight between pedestrians and locals, on the one hand, and cosmopolites on the other.


Beyoglu pedestrian street: great for people, impassable for cars


– so far only one restaurant has put the idea into practice, at a price of 20,000  Turkish lira [About $12,500 – Ed.].


Most restaurant and bar owners, however, reject this costly plan.


Does the permit, I wonder, run to the tenant or to the property owner?  If the latter, owners should buy them, and if that happens, then all of Beyoglu will be reshaped with 70-cm eating gardens.


According to Turkish media, the official guidelines are vague: the balcony should be “chic” and not cheap-looking, but business owners could decide themselves about the final design.


That gives a lot of power to the urban land mafia, or the taste police.


Erol, a publisher who enjoys a beer sitting on a windowsill at Kahve Pi, has been working in Beyoglu for eight years. “About 15 years ago it must have been a little like this here, very quiet. And to be honest, the silence is quite nice. Of course from the point of view of business owners, this silence is not a good thing.”


This is by no means the last of Istanbul’s displacements, nor will it be the most disruptive.


You fellows are standing in the way of progress