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In Booming Istanbul, A Clash Between Old And New

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On a frigid January morning, bundled-up travelers step off a ferry and scurry toward the imposing stone walls of the Haydarpasa train station, a 19th century landmark in Istanbul, a city full of history.

The people boarding this morning are nostalgic. They're longtime station employees, taking one of the last train runs to Eskesihir, 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.

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 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 bridge across the Bosporus is planned, which would bring roads and development to a large swath of forest land in the city's northern reaches.

The Prime Minister's Plan

It's all part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's drive to revamp Istanbul and make its future as glorious as its past.

"With the new convention centers, sports and cultural centers that we're building, we're preparing the way for a modern future on a historic foundation," Erdogan says. "At the same time, we're investing to turn Istanbul into the financial center of the world."

Erdogan's comment is included in a new documentary film 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 in 1980, urban planners agreed that the city's geography could support a maximum population of 5 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.

More Commercial Space

He's also distressed by a trend that began well before Erdogan — the transformation of open and public spaces in the city into profit-generating commercial properties.

One example is playing out in Istanbul's main Taksim Square, part of which has been a park since the early 1940s.

Until World War II, an Ottoman military barracks stood on the spot. The historic building fell into disuse and was demolished to create the park. But now, many trees have red marks on them, signifying that they will be cut down so the park can be turned into a shopping mall.

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.

"In order to protect this already-demolished building, they're rebuilding it," he says. "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."

Back when he was mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan took a strong stand on the project activists today fear most — the third bridge spanning the Bosporus.

In 1995, then-Mayor Erdogan was quoted as saying a third Bosporus 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.

Opposition To A Bridge

What infuriates critics of the 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.

"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," Baysal says. "I mean, when you build a bridge, immediately you build the roads, you cut down the trees, all kinds of neighborhoods coming up."

Here's how this stretch of the Bosporus, close to the Black Sea, is described in the city's best-known guidebook, Strolling Through Istanbul:

"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."

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 will 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. Critics say it's a recipe for unrest, crime and a host of other problems mega-cities around the world are struggling with.

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