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August 19, 2008, Tuesday

Barefoot in the park

İstanbul's spectacular summer nights more than compensate for the daily frustration of traffic jams and the noise pollution inevitable in a busy metropolis.What makes İstanbul more attractive every summer is the growing number of cultural events taking place across the city.

Every week I get emails listing an almost overwhelming variety of musical and cultural events. Many concerts remain out of reach of people in the lower income group, but the number of performances available to a wide audience is growing steadily.

This August, in the run-up to İstanbul's year as European Capital of Culture, the İstanbul 2010 Agency is organizing free concerts in several parts of the city. The Bosporus and a full moon provided a sensational background for an informal jazz evening in Kuruçesme on Saturday, accompanied by the traditional balık ekmek (fish and bread). The delicious smell wafting from the grill contributed to a laidback atmosphere. Listeners, sitting informally on the grass, behaved with a courtesy that contrasted with the pushing and shoving that sometimes takes place during the day when everyone is in a hurry.

From Turkish classical music to jazz, from folk music from the Balkans to traditional Anatolian tunes, concerts are taking place in parks, piers and squares, showcasing the diverse sounds of İstanbul. If this is a taste of what İstanbul residents can expect in 2010, I cannot wait. Cultural events of this kind make local residents feel part of a community and increase a sense of solidarity and ownership of the city.

İstanbul 2010 is not the only organization making culture accessible to a broader public. In my neighborhood, banners are advertising outdoor cinema evenings, organized by the Beşiktaş Municipality as part of its Evenings in the Park program.

The city's main visual arts museums are also reaching out with educational programs for people, particularly children and teenagers, of all social backgrounds. Santral İstanbul, one of the city's most recent arts venues, located at the end of the Golden Horn, targets mainly the local community and schoolchildren. At İstanbul Modern, entrance is free of charge for the general public on Thursdays. During the academic year, groups of primary school children tour the main exhibition hall regularly. The Sabancı Museum, which has hosted exciting exhibitions by world-renowned artists in the past couple of years, has also developed educational tools to promote young people's creativity and enjoyment of art. To tie in with its spectacular Joan Miro exhibition, the Pera Museum offers free workshops for children.

These efforts may not have narrowed the wide social and economic gap that still divides the city's affluent residents from the less fortunate recent migrants living in the periphery. But they are part of a rapid social transformation that is taking place in the city, and in Turkey as a whole, as a growing middle class emerges.

Economic development may be the most visible aspect of Turkey's changing landscape, with new shopping malls and restaurants opening up all over the city. Cultural and artistic events, however, affect the society at a deeper level, fostering social inclusion and the development of urban communal values that are gradually replacing village ties. In that sense, İstanbul 2010, which will mobilize all cultural institutions of the city -- public and private -- offers a unique opportunity to give all İstanbul residents a stake in the future of their city. İstanbul residents can look forward to more conferences, exhibitions and concerts, barefoot in the park, as the city spreads its wings and prepares to display its colorful diversity to the outside world.

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