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Sidewalk clash in Istanbul – islamism or car culture?

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The main pedestrian drag in Beyoglu

Last Wednesday  the Globe had an article describing a recent crackdown on sidewalk cafes in Istanbul.

According to the article, the government’s islamist leanings are responsible for an increase in petty harassment of cafes that have tables that encroach too far on the sidewalk.  That, supposedly, leads to public drinking and disorderly conduct, things that are frowned upon by islamists. And is to be curtailed.

What a shame.  Beyoglu, where this is happening, is the vibrant heart of the city.  And if any city can claim to have invented the sweet life of cafe culture – to say nothing of the art of drinking coffee – it has to be Istanbul.  A sweet, rich, complex city, as European as you can get in Turkey, as Asian as you can get in Europe.  Anyone interested in a mixture of exoticism and nostalgia could do worse than reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, a wondeful mix of biography and love letter to the city of his youth – now long gone.

And maybe that’s precisely the problem.  Pamuk’s Istanbul was a city of a million citizens, with a complex culture rooted in a mix of Turcs, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and other influences.  But by Pamuk’s time successive nasty wars had already started to empty the city of its Greek and Armenian citizens, followed by the Jews.  Now the city is a monster of 15 million, most of the growth coming from eastern – Asian – Turkey.  These newcomers have brought with them a more traditional lifestyle – chadors are no longer rare – and a huge mass of conservative voters.  Pamuk himself has had problems with the government, for daring to be too outspoken.

So, superficially, it would seem that Turkey is turning islamist, and the western media is wringing its collective hands with worry.  But is it the real story?

I don’t think so.   Under cover of islamism, I think this is simply a new chapter of something that started in the west and is now a constant battle in cities throughout the world: cars – or, rather, drivers – are pushing people off the streets.  There’s nothing like the sense of entitlement that comes to the chauffeured elites to boil in indignation at the least traffic jam – how dare they be in MY way!  In this view of the world, the streets belong to those rich enough to ride fancy cars in them.

And god knows, Istanbul is not particularly pedestrian or cycling friendly (David Byrne’s Cycling Diaries has an eye-opening chapter on Istanbul).  Cars, delivery vans, motorbikes compete for the least amount of open space – pedestrians beware.  Which is why what is going on in Beyoglu is interesting.  The cafes are so busy and popular that their tables take up all the space on the sidewalks, forcing the pedestrians to walk down the streets.  And, since the neighbourhood is hopping, there are so many of them that they get in the way of the already congested car traffic.  The revealing section of the article is this throw-away statement:

“Somebody who appeared to be a bodyguard poked his head out of one of the black sedans and started screaming at people blocking the convoy’s path, the bar owner said.”

This, in a nutshell, is the whole story.  Ordinary folks, walking down the street, squeezing between cars as best they can, having fun.  And getting in the way of “important people”, and their cars.  A scene that has been endlessly repeated all over the world’s cities and capitals.  As Denis Baupin, the French Green Party assistant to the mayor of Paris, pointed out, this is why pedestrian ways, cycling paths, and public transit gets so neglected: the elites never use them, never want to use them.  It’s only when those in charge, like the mayors of Vancouver or Seattle, prefer to be pedestrians or cyclists that things change.

So hang in there, Beyoglu.  Your cafe culture is worth fighting for – and the enemy is not Islam, it’s rich elites and their cars.

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Written by enviropaul

October 7, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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