Jennifer Hattam

The ongoing debate raises bigger questions about who benefits from the city's changing landscape.

In the shadows of the 1,500-year-old fortifications ringing Istanbul’s historic core, farmers push wheelbarrows of freshly harvested greens through small vegetable gardens, continuing a centuries-long tradition in the area. This past week, however, the farmers watched in dismay as bulldozers moved into the Yedikule neighborhood, dumping trash-strewn dirt and rubble onto the fertile soil of two of those gardens.

"I don’t know what we’ll do, where we’ll go if our land gets destroyed as well. We don’t have anything else," says one woman who works a nearby plot along with her husband, scraping out a living selling their chard, corn, radishes, purslane, and herbs at Istanbul’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

An excavator covers the İsmail Paşa Garden with dirt. (Jennifer Hattam)

Like many of the people currently farming along the old city walls, the couple are migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea coast, who have followed in the footsteps of the Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, and Albanians who tended the land before them. The specific gardens currently being razed have been identified on a map dating back to 1786, but historical sources indicate that small-scale agriculture was present in the area not long after the UNESCO-designated city walls were built in the 400s.

"Though the people working there change, these gardens have been part of the urban landscape of Istanbul for arguably longer than [the 6th-century basilica] Hagia Sophia itself," says Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, a lecturer in architectural history at Middle East Technical University in the Turkish capital city of Ankara. "It’s a remarkable continuity of a single area for agricultural use throughout history. The gardens are part of the cultural heritage of Istanbul, of the identity of the city itself, and should be preserved for that reason."

Many in Istanbul see the destruction of the traditional market gardens (known in Turkish as bostan) as the latest in a series of assaults on the city’s historic character and unique identity. Frustrations with the pace and process of change boiled over at the end of May, erupting into mass protests after police repeatedly tear-gassed people peacefully demonstrating to protect Gezi Park, a rare green space in the center of the city, from being turned into the site of a shopping mall.

But unlike other debates over development in Istanbul – where forested areas are being razed to build a new airport and bridge, waterfront is being privatized, and beloved neighborhood institutions are being replaced by malls – the situation is Yedikule is complicated by what is set to replace the gardens: a city park.

"We will clean up this area and make a park so people who live in this neighborhood can walk and bike by the city walls," Mustafa Demir, the mayor of the local Fatih Municipality, said last week as members of his administration stood behind him holding aloft renderings of the planned park, with its artificial river, fountains, playgrounds, and cafes.

A rendering of the proposed new park in Istanbul's Yedikule neighborhood. (Fatih Municipality)

The fate of the bostan has divided residents of Yedikule, a largely lower-income neighborhood where some more luxurious housing has recently been built. The ongoing protests elsewhere in the city have fueled tensions between the gardeners and their supporters and those backing the municipality’s park plans.

A press conference last week to alert the media to the destruction of the bostan turned into a shouting match between members of the two camps, with Demir’s supporters angrily calling for those who had rallied in support of the gardens to go back home and leave their neighborhood alone. "I just want a park, a park for my kids," one woman yelled as she balanced one small child on her hip and held another’s hand. "We don’t want protests to start here and the police to come like in Gezi Park."

"These gardens are not just part of this neighborhood, they belong to everyone in Istanbul, to everyone in Turkey," another woman countered.

Corn and other crops growing along the historic city walls. (Jennifer Hattam)

In a metro area that has grown from around 1.5 million people in 1960 to roughly 15 million today, debates like the one over the Yedikule gardens inevitably bring up bigger questions about who benefits and who is harmed by changes to the urban landscape, and how such decisions are made. Public input about new projects is rarely solicited. Even when people have an opportunity to air their concerns to officials, it never seems to result in any change to the plans.

Such was the case last Wednesday, when an ad-hoc group of garden supporters sat down with municipality officials, according to Aleksandar Sopov, an Ottoman historian who lives in Istanbul and has been doing fieldwork in the bostan. "We brought maps showing the age of the gardens and argued that they should be saved. The officials said they would consider this," Sopov says. "We walked away thinking it was a positive development and that the work would be halted, but unfortunately it wasn’t. Instead they sped it up."

Court cases and even legal rulings likewise seem to hold little weight in Istanbul when it comes to urban planning. Construction work to redevelop Taksim Square and Gezi Park in the modern city center continued while a lawsuit to stop the project was still pending, and after a court ruled in June in favor of the plaintiffs. (Last week, the Turkish Parliament passed a surprise bill stripping away the oversight responsibility for urban-planning projects held by the chamber of architects and engineers that had filed the case.) Along another part of the city walls further inland from Yedikule, the redevelopment of the historic Roma community Sulukule was ruled “not beneficial to the public” ­– after most of the neighborhood had already been torn down.

The story of the Yedikule gardens doesn’t have to end the same way, Sopov says. "The municipality could still reverse its decision and preserve this important living legacy as a beautiful space where the children of Istanbul could learn about soil and trees and plants," he says. "I hope the authorities can find some kind of middle ground to preserve the gardens while creating a space for the enjoyment of the public."

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