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Gentrification Follies

Politicians are turning Istanbul's year as European Cultural Capital 2010 into a program for promoting real estate and tourism.

Ten days before President Obama's visit to Istanbul at the beginning of the month, a different kind of cultural invasion swept over the Bosporus. The invader: Black/North SEAS. A 3 year old consortium organising international co-productions and collaborative programming, Black/North SEAS is led by Stockholm’s Intercult with the support of the EU Culture Programme. Starting in May 2008 in Odessa, Black/North SEAS has taken a travelling package of workshops, performances, exhibitions and installations designed for public spaces and, in June, moved it through small towns along the Romanian and Bulgarian Black Sea coast. From there, it descended upon Istanbul in March, and in autumn it will visit Scandinavian harbour cities and East Yorkshire, England. In 2010, more collaborations will follow. The initiative is a continuation of a SEAS program that, since 2003, has been connecting artists and cultural organizations from Baltic and Adriatic harbour cities, seen as gateways of intercultural engagement and laboratories of urban renewal. This month, in Istanbul, Black/North SEAS held a conference on urban mapping and culturally led urban development. It occupied public spaces with processions and installations and ran a series of workshops, exhibitions and performances by Turkish, Swedish, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Dutch and Norwegian artists. The organization is also preparing co-productions for 2010.

In spite of its size, the Black/North SEAS project still managed to go largely unnoticed by most people living in Istanbul. In that respect, Black/North SEAS raised—again—the question of how one creates a cultural impact in a city of almost 15 million inhabitants, few of whom attend cultural events. In the expanse of Istanbul neighbourhoods, cultural infrastructure is scarce and terribly inadequate, especially on the Asian side. But even on the European side, most cultural spaces were created by private initiative and are concentrated in the few square kilometres of Beyoglu, a traditional zone of European cultural presence featuring some splendid new museums and cultural centres. Two prominent public locations, the Ataturk Cultural Centre (AKM) in Taksim, home to the opera and symphonic orchestra, and the nearby Istanbul branch of the National Theater of Ankara have been closed for renovation. Two years after their closing, no renovation is in progress, and, on a sunny Friday afternoon, AKM employees held a benevolent protest in front of their house, once a bastion of secular republicanism, but now – some claim – in danger of losing some of its cultural integrity by serving as a profit-oriented congress centre. Still, in Beyoglu, small venues appear, created by artists who double as cultural entrepreneurs. Spaces such as Garaje, Talimhane Tryatrosu and Tütün Deposu are the most recent additions. The first took over part of a parking garage near Galata Lucée to create a dance space; the second is a former factory converted into a performance venue; the third is a former tobacco warehouse, used in 2005 for the Istanbul Biennial, and serving now as an art exhibition space. All are having difficulties surviving, in spite of enthusiastic audiences.

Santral is a cultural centre on another order of magnitude, ambition and complexity. A former electricity power plant from the beginning of the twentieth century, decommissioned and abandoned decades ago, this immense space at the northernmost part of the Golden Horn has now been leased by the authorities to the private Bilgi University. Bilgi University has created its third campus there, opening a museum of contemporary arts, a Museum of Energy, three restaurants and a splendid hostel that may one day function as a space for artists in residence. Santral is a long term, innovative project on a large scale, integrating higher education, cultural heritage and contemporary creativity in a manner never seen before in Turkey. University classroom blocks are simple but comfortable and well equipped, and the restaurants have become popular hangouts. With its ongoing international orientation, Bilgi is bringing academic and professional conferences to the campus. Hopefully, in due time, it will find ways to engage the poor neighbourhoods surrounding it. A free shuttle bus departs from central Taksim square every 20 minutes, and its journey has been shortened by a new tunnel the municipality opened a few weeks ago. Once again, private capital and especially private universities have reaffirmed their pioneering role in urban development.

In contrast, a public agency created to implement plans for Istanbul’s year as the European Cultural Capital 2010 has been wasting time and suffers from a lack of credibility. Calls for the submission of artistic projects have been delayed, and then stopped; some executives in charge of art grants have resigned; and members of the small and fragile contemporary art community say their attempts at getting any kind of assistance from the agency have proved consistently futile. Foreign colleagues, eager to develop artistic projects with Turkish partners, report frustrating delays, much uncertainty and little sensitivity to their needs. Politicians repeatedly signal in public that for them European Cultural Capital 2010 is not a matter of cultural development and a boost to the arts but rather a real estate improvement project to spur investments, jobs and more tourism. In 2005, when Istanbul’s candidacy was still being mulled over by the European Commission, I reported that many Istanbul cultural professionals perceived the honour as a potential real estate machination, without any cultural objectives. More than three years later, large scale gentrification plans are more extensive than any plausible or coherent cultural program. Immense reconstruction operations are being announced, and some of them appear brutally indifferent to the complex layers of the metropolis and its unique architectural features. For example, in the municipality of Beyoglu, gentrification began 15 years ago along the main pedestrian street and is now fanning out in all directions; a promotional video presents the area as a fancy upper-class residential district—and in so doing, sweeps away two centuries of urban history. But now the economic crisis has visibly slowed construction activity, and shrinking exports have weakened the Turkish currency.

Municipal elections the day after the end of the Black/North SEAS program weakened the predominance of the ruling AKP, confirming the steady position of the traditional secularist and now quite nationalist CHP party in Izmir and coastal towns. The DKP Kurdish party in eastern Anatolia also registered gains. The press has speculated that after these elections and Obama’s visit, AKP Prime Minister Erdogan will reshuffle his cabinet and split the present Ministry of Tourism and Culture in two, thus ending the longstanding subservience of culture to the promotion of tourism and spurring cultural development and cultural policy innovation. Another positive signal comes from Strasbourg, where Council of Europe experts will finally be allowed to evaluate Turkish cultural policy and to compare their evaluation with a comprehensive report prepared by the Turkish government itself. Greater Istanbul and most of its local municipalities remain in AKP hands, which could mean the continuation of benign neglect of contemporary cultural production, with sporadic invocations of the traditional, rural and religiously inspired aspects of culture in local, small scale events and programs.

In the past 25 years many European cities made poor use of their European Cultural Capital year, getting entangled in political fights, missing creative and networking opportunities and completing infrastructure projects only after significant delays. With a unique resilience fostered over millennia, Istanbul will survive this “special year,” as disappointing as it might turn out to be. Istanbul cultural professionals already have low expectations of public authorities and are concentrating on private support and foreign partners. Master’s programs in cultural management and policy at Bilgi and other universities are schooling a new generation of competent, resolute professionals who will hopefully grasp the advantages of multiple partnerships and joint advocacy. And admirers of Istanbul from all over the world will come back, eager to trade the follies of gentrification for the remains of the chaotic, topsy-turvy, irresistible Istanbul, full of the idiosyncratic mixtures, traditions and enterprising adaptability that have always fascinated travellers.


Dr Dragan Klaic, a theatre scholar and cultural analyst from Amsterdam, lectures about cultural policies across Europe.

Read more of his articles at here - let's talk european