There are gaily decorated stick figures on every corner, attached to street lights and fence posts. They are scarecrows, not to frighten away evil spirits but to spook the evil developers who are trying to turn an important green space into something big, grey and ugly.
It is a particularly ingenious community protest, and Hélène Flautre, co-chairperson of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, came to see for herself the other day, along with our local MP, Ufuk Uras. It is an unusual but happily not unique example of local people in Turkey trying to protect something precious from those blinkered by love of money. The land in question is publicly owned, or at least controlled by the National Real Estate board, and for many years it had a “bostan” or market garden, owned by an İstanbul Greek family. About 20 years ago local residents came together to stop it being turned into a hospital for the foundation led by the now infamous Mehmet Haberal, a suspect in the Ergenekon trial. It is currently a garden center and the “lungs” of the protected district of Kuzguncuk. However, the board has realized they can get a bigger rent from the property if they change the zoning laws and build something horrendous on the site. So again the residents are up in arms.
With an election in the offing, the opposition parties have already put up posters pledging solidarity with those trying to save the Kuzguncuk Bostanı. The governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has gone that little bit further in setting up an actual campaign office, and some activist neighbors went to see the local Üsküdar mayor to make the case for turning the bostan into a community park. They seemed to be committed but weren’t sure how easy it would be to wrest the land away from the National Real Estate board.
“We’d get things done quicker if people didn’t keep putting obstacles in our way,” said the local AK party man, and my friends looked at him in alarm. He was parroting the very words which the prime minister had uttered at a ceremony to mark the launch of a project to build a car tunnel under the Sea of Marmara, connecting the Asian side of the city to İstanbul’s historic peninsula.
Any reader of this column knows how much I disapprove of the proposed third Bosporus bridge and will not be surprised that I am equally critical of a tunnel whose purpose will be to bring traffic to a part of İstanbul that by rights should be a pedestrian zone. They might just as well turn the courtyard of the Blue Mosque into a multi-story car park and Topkapı Palace into a drive-in shopping mall. Until this government regards the private motor car with the same sense of opprobrium it regards smoking cigarettes or quaffing gin and tonics, the city has no hope.
Yet there was the prime minister complaining about all the goody two-shoes who put obstacles in the way of progress. He described the delays to a separate rail-link being built under the Bosporus as intolerable. The delay he referred to was the uncovering of what is now regarded as our generation’s discovery of the pyramids -- the ancient harbor of Byzantium. “They kept putting obstacles in our way -- a bit of archaeological stuff, a clay pot, a bit of this or that. As if these were more important than people,” Mr. Erdoğan said. He went on: “On one hand, we are members of a civilization that says we should do everything for humanity. And yet while we are sons of a nation that says exalt people so as to exalt the state, we allow ourselves to be trapped by all this stuff?”
“Obstacles, shmobstacles -- from now on we will not let them get in our way whatever the price,” the prime minister declared. But frankly, what is the point of living in İstanbul if you complain that its history is in your way?
The people the prime minister seeks to exalt are ones with very different values than the ones who live in my neighborhood. Alas, I’ve lost confidence in our array of scarecrows. I’m not sure who is scaring whom.