Some days ago, I paid a visit to Gezi Park, the inner-city green that kept our minds and hearts busy for months. Protecting it had united unprecedented numbers of people from all over Turkey in protest against their government. Many months have passed since the Governor of Istanbul ordered the clearing of the occupied park and the wounds caused by this violent intervention – and the following vicious crackdown on protests – still haven’t healed. But what has happened to the park itself? Which side has ‘won’ the altercation: Prime Minister Erdoğan and his seemingly unstoppable urban transformation or the park protectors and protesters who sacrificed far more than just their tents and their summer for Gezi Park?
The park itself remains intact to this day – the Beyoğlu district administration even invested in new flower beds and a dolphin-shaped, LED-illuminated fountain. The greens remain a popular hangout and due to the surprisingly mild weather many people stroll through the park or enjoy their tea on one of the park’s many benches. This tranquil scene, however, is deceptive since the park is not only surrounded by plenty of ugly concrete, but also remains under constant threat of being destroyed to make room for a controversial structure, a replica of Ottoman military barracks earmarked for commercial and housing use. To understand what is happening behind the scenes, I decided to meet with Akif Burak Atlar, the secretary of the Istanbul Chamber of City Planners and one of the spokespeople of the Taksim Support Platform, an umbrella organization for more than 125 different interest groups and institutions to protect the historical integrity of the square and park.
The platform’s struggle against the rezoning and development of historical Beyoğlu started long before the protesters took their cause to the streets of Istanbul, he explains. And the situation is far more complex than I had imagined. In 1993, when Taksim Square, Gezi Park, and the surrounding district were declared a protected urban area by the Ministry of Tourism’s regional Board for Protection and Conservation, the Beyoğlu municipality started to devise zoning plans to develop and protect the area. The finished plans were published some 16 years later and, with a few changes, again in 2011. It was in these two years that the municipality added the amendments that triggered the protests of 2013. Namely, the vast traffic tunnels underneath the square and a planned large near-replica of the historical military barracks that had been located on the square until their destruction in the late 1920s, a structure designed to replace Gezi Park. The Chamber of Architects and the Chamber of City Planners immediately issued a statement to protest these altered plans. They started to campaign for the protection of Gezi Park and a lawsuit against these plans made it through several courts. At the time of writing, both the original plans from 2009 and the amended version from 2011 have been deemed illegal by the courts. A happy end for Gezi Park? Not quite.
In the summer of 2013, the regional Board for Protection and Conservation called the destruction of Gezi Park illegal and a violation of the guidelines for protected urban areas. This pro-Gezi proclamation was annulled soon after by the higher National Board. A case filed against this annulment won in the first instance, yet was itself rejected by a higher court later on. Amidst all these bureaucratic struggles, the people of Istanbul reclaimed the park for its original purpose – as a small and welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of Beyoğlu’s streets. The slightly ramshackle symbol of resistance is still standing, its now leafless trees waiting for spring and the local elections of March 2014 – the results will surely influence the fate of Gezi Park.