Istanbul: A straining metropolis dreams big

By Christopher Torchia

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 8:35 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 10, 2011 file photo, one city's landmarks, Galata Tower is seen in Istanbul, Turkey. On a moonlit night in the backstreets of Beyoglu, one of Istanbul's oldest districts, the worn facades and sharp-angled shadows recall the mournful character of the city that Nobel-prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk described in a memoir. New, brash Istanbul charges ahead, and it's harder to uncover those pockets of dark ruin that epitomize "huzun," the dense, communal melancholy that permeated the former imperial capital in Pamuk's work. As Turkey strives for global status, its leading city strains to channel expansion that threatens its heritage, environment and even its identity.

Burhan Ozbilici, File, Associated Press

ISTANBUL — On a moonlit night in the backstreets of Beyoglu, one of Istanbul's oldest districts, the worn facades and sharp-angled shadows recall the mournful character of the city that Nobel-prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk described in a memoir.

But really, it's just a glimpse.

New, brash Istanbul charges ahead, and it's harder to uncover those pockets of dark ruin that epitomize "huzun," the dense, communal melancholy that permeated the former imperial capital in Pamuk's work. As Turkey strives for global status, its leading city strains to channel expansion that threatens its heritage, environment and even its identity.

An ambler can step out of the alleyways and zoom up an elevator to a hotel roofdeck for a panoramic view of the mouth of the Bosporus Strait, where an armada of cargo ships lies, and the towers of a bustling financial district. Fireworks burst by the shores of the Golden Horn inlet, so far below and so far away that the sound does not carry.

Once a backwater aching with memories of a glorious past, Istanbul today is hectically, perhaps blindly, hustling to create a vibrant future.

Istanbul, whose name derives from the Greek for "to the city," is home to nearly 20 percent of the 75 million people in Turkey, compressing and magnifying the swirl of a democracy in progress with a Muslim identity and a Western outlook. It is the engine and the envoy for a country that wants to be a force in the world after generations on the sidelines.

At the national level, rhetoric sometimes eclipses real economic and diplomatic achievements. Turkey is a "beacon for the world," says one Cabinet minister. Istanbul barrels ahead with the same kind of ebullience.

A documentary called "Ekumenopolis: City Without Limits" suggests congestion, real estate speculation and big projects such as a plan to build a third bridge over the Bosporus are creating a class-bound sprawl lorded over by politically connected barons of the construction industry.

Director Imre Azem said audiences at foreign film festivals were surprised at what they saw on the screen.

"It shatters their image of Istanbul. They have this nostalgic kind of image of Istanbul, with its mosques and all this tourist stuff," Azem said. "For Turkish people, it's kind of saying things that they already know because they live in this city and they know its problems."

Azem, 36, grew up in Istanbul and went to the United States to study, but returned often to find a frenzy of change.

"One time I come here, there's a park. And then the next time, six months later, the park has become a building," Azem said. "I really just started questioning where this is heading."

He said Istanbul was so vast that he had met some poor residents who had never seen the Bosporus Strait even though they had lived in the city for years. A common Turkish term is "gecekondu," or "built overnight," a reference to the shoddy apartment buildings that authorities in Istanbul condoned over decades, but now talk about replacing.

Istanbul also lives on a latent edge, wary that a catastrophic earthquake might strike tomorrow, in a decade, or not in anyone's lifetime. Turkey lies in an active seismic zone.

An international athletics event was held this weekend in a stadium built in line with safety codes imposed after 1999 quakes in northwest Turkey killed 18,000, including some on the outskirts of Istanbul. The old building at the site housed a swimming pool, but was demolished after experts found cracks from those temblors.

The jewel of the city's ambitions is the Olympics. Istanbul bid for the right to host the games four previous times, but Turkey's economic growth over the last decade and its political assertiveness make it a strong candidate. Rivals are Tokyo; Doha, Qatar; Madrid; and Baku, Azerbaijan. The decision will be announced next year.

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