RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Turkey shares a border with Greece, but not its neighbor's well-publicized economic woes. Turkey's economy is booming. Its largest city, Istanbul, is awash in new luxury hotels, villas and fancy restaurants, with more upscale development in the works. And that has brought a different kind of woe to the city's working class neighborhoods and some of its most beloved spaces. which is bad news for the city's working class neighborhoods and some of its most beloved structures. A new documentary warns all of this will damage the fabric of Istanbul. From the city, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
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PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On a frigid January morning, bundled-up travelers step off a ferry and scurry toward the imposing stone walls of the Haydarpasa train station, the 19th century landmark that was once a major stop on the Berlin to Baghdad line. Several dozen of the people boarding the Baskent Express this morning are in a nostalgic mood.
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KENYON: They're long-term Haydarpasa employees taking one of the last runs to Eskisehir, where the station's first director-general is buried. They're going, as it were, to give him bad news - that Haydarpasa's 150-year service as a public transportation center may be coming to an end. Officially, the station is closing temporarily for repairs and the laying of high-speed track. But employees fear that during the two-year closure, the decision will be made to convert the station to a more lucrative purpose. Plans are still under discussion, but possibilities include a luxury hotel, perhaps with a museum, and a shopping mall.
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KENYON: The potential closing of this iconic station is just one of the fast-moving major projects alarming urban planners and local activists. Working-class neighborhoods with names like Ayazma and Tarlabasi have been cleared of their inhabitants to make way for villas and hotels. Public schools and hospitals, some in historic buildings, are being sold to private developers. And a third Bosphorus bridge is planned, bringing roads and developments to a large swath of forest land in the city's northern reaches. It's all part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's drive to push Istanbul into the top rank of global cities.
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through translator) With the new convention centers, sports and cultural centers that we're building, we're preparing the way for a modern future on an historic foundation. At the same time, we're investing to turn Istanbul into the financial center of the world.
KENYON: That comment from the prime minister is included in a new documentary on the impact of growth on Istanbul. It's called "Ecumenopolis," a term coined in the 1960s to suggest a future in which sprawling metropolises merge into one giant urban dystopia. Director Imre Azem says in the course of making the film he learned that back in 1980, urban planners agreed that the city's geography could support a maximum population of five million. With a current population estimate of 13 to 14 million and a forecast that it will hit 25 to 30 million by 2023, Azem says the municipality should be much more concerned than it seems to be. He's also distressed by a trend that began well before Erdogan came to power but has been embraced by him - the transformation of open and public spaces in the city into profit-generating commercial properties. One example is occurring in Istanbul's main Taksim Square, part of which has been a park since the early 1940s.
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KENYON: So we're in the middle of a park of Taksim Square. What - and you're looking at a red cross on a tree. What does this park signify?
IMRE AZEM: This mark signifies that this tree will be cut down. There are many, actually, marked with a red...
KENYON: Yeah, all the way down, yeah.
AZEM: Yeah, all of these, actually. This is because this park will be turned into a shopping mall.
KENYON: Until early in World War II, an Ottoman military barrack stood here. The historic building fell into disuse and was demolished to create Taksim Park. Azem says developers have long coveted this prime property but were blocked by laws protecting the city's green spaces. Then they hit on the idea, he says, of using Turkey's laws on preserving historic buildings.
AZEM: In order to protect this already-demolished building, they're rebuilding it. They're saying they're preserving it, but it's already gone. They're making a restoration of the old barracks, like an imitation, which will serve as a shopping mall.
KENYON: At a nearby restaurant, the head of a neighborhood citizens group is desperate to raise public awareness of the changes in the offing. Nazli Enlieoglu recalls that during the earthquake of 1999, Taksim Park was the only safe place she could sleep. Even if the city leaves a bit of the park in the courtyard of the rebuilt barracks, she says, it will no longer be a safe haven.
NAZLI ENLIEOGLU: I think absolutely not. Because if they build a barracks, then there will also be a building surrounding the park. And the purpose of going to the park was that there were no big buildings around anyway.
KENYON: Back when he was mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan took a strong stand on the project activists today fear most - the third bridge. In 1995, Mayor Erdogan was quoted as saying a third Bosphorus bridge would be a crime against the city. As prime minister, though, Erdogan has embraced the bridge, as well as new car and train tunnels. What infuriates critics of the third bridge is what they call its transparently false rationale. It's supposed to relieve Istanbul's heavy traffic congestion, says activist Cihan Baysal, but its proposed location is much too far north to affect current traffic flows.
CIHAN BAYSAL: We just can't believe it, really. Because that part of the city is where we have all the green - the forests, the ecological reserves, water reserves. Water basins of the city are there, actually. I mean, when you build a bridge, immediately you build the roads, you cut down the trees, all kinds of neighborhoods coming up.
KENYON: Here's how this stretch of the Bosphorus, close to the Black Sea, is described in the city's best-known guidebook, "Strolling Through Istanbul"...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now for the first time on the Bosphorus, one finds sandy beaches hidden away in romantic coves. Gray herons haunt the cliffs. Great clouds of shearwaters, those lost souls of the Bosphorus, skim the surface, torn by frequent schools of dolphins. The scene is much the same as when Jason and his Argonauts sailed past on their way to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece.
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KENYON: Several groups have sprung up in opposition to the various projects to transform parts of the city, but they're hampered by disparate goals and small numbers. Supporters of the projects say they'll improve living standards and create jobs. But activists say Istanbul residents could one day wake up in a modern, segregated city, with the rich locked in gated communities and the poor in high-rise public housing blocks, which critics say is a recipe for unrest, crime and a host of other problems mega-cities around the world are struggling with. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.