Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Remembering Taksim Square (at least a little)


We visited Taksim Square, the ground zero of the current anti-authoritarian demonstrations in Turkey, on our visit to Istanbul last year, but didn't stay. It was pouring a rain when we got there, a cold wintry rain in the last days of February that turned to a fine dusting of snow by the next morning. I was wearing my Massachusetts winter parka and was still cold. One of our three umbrellas shattered in the blast off the Bosphorus. We tossed the broken remnants into the nearest trash bin.
Taksim Square is located in Beyoglu, a part of the city settled first by Genoans in the 14th century, which earns it the title of the "new city" in ancient Istanbul (once known as Constantinople). Our plan was to walk down Istiklal Caddesi, the city's most fashionable avenue (according to the guidebooks) through the new “European” quarter of the city during what turned out out to be the height of the evening torrent.
This was the second day of our five-day stay in one of the world's unique places.
In the course of our first, frantic once-over-everything day, we crossed the Galata Bridge from the Old City, where where we were staying, to Beyoglu It was a Sunday and the bridge was mobbed. People go there to get the fresh air, for the exercise, to throw a fishing line over the side, to people watch, or eat or snack or drink in the long row of cafes and restaurants on the bridge’s lower level. The vitality is impressive. I christened it the Central Park of Istanbul.
This comparison tells you everything you need to know about the city's resistance to losing to Taksim Square and neighboring Gezi Park to the sterile makeover envisioned by Erdogan's edifice complex. Really old cities seldom have enough green park space; the concept wasn't invented when they were built. Green space of any sort is rare in Beyoglu. The city of Istanbul possesses great natural beauty due to the the wrap-around presence of three significant bodies of water; but in-town, so to speak, is short on parks.
After crossing the Galata Bridge, we passed on the funicular, the popular way to ascend uphill to Beyoglu. Instead we climb up a series of narrow stairs and inclined streets with the locals through a neighborhood of old buildings and apartments (restored and decaying) patisseries, cafes and small stores, until we get to the elegant Tunel Square, with views over the Golden Horn. We find a cafe in an elegant, very European alley, open air but under a roof. But that's as far as our energy lasts that day.
We plan to go deeper in our next day's excursion, after devoting the first half of the day to the world's most ancient great cathedral, Hagia Sofia, a building with slices of three great empries, Rome, Byzantium and Ottoman, in its DNA.
This day's lesson is the Turks are tough. Nobody here apologizes for the ferocious winds and day-long driving rains of our first full day in Istanbul. The locals do not huddle inside cafes and whine to one another like self-respecting Mediterraneans. They do not wear hats in the rain and snow, as if permanently traumatized by the loss of the fez under Attaturk. A few have umbrellas; not a high percentage. A much higher percentage of tourists do carry umbrellas; our own little party is 3 for 3.
When we need to replace the broken umbrella, we buy one from a man who stands exposed in the rain all day selling them, holding his own in frozen fingers over his rain-swept body. Similar street-vendors stayed out of doors, unsheltered, all day; shifting their feet, but looking less miserable than I did after five minutes of wind-driven rain in my puss.
This day we take a "historic trolley," a classy vehicle made of polished old wood, up from Tunel Square, a hub not only for fine cafes and potted flowers but for transportation, to Taksim Square. My only lasting impression is it's a place near stores, workplaces and other services where people catch their bus to go home at the end of the day. The weather is wet and windy and we quickly agree that the only sensible thing for us to do is to walk the fashionable avenue back down toward Tunel unitl we give up and take a bus or train back to the hotel.
We window shop and stop a couple times to browse bookstores, a good excuse to get out of the rain. Then somehow, when we need to rest up and eat, Sonya’s guidebook skills discover a stylish and hospitable tappas-style restaurant located in a restored building in another of these old city alleys only a block or so from our current whereabouts. When we emerge a good while later, the Turks are still out there, striding bare-headed through the frozen rain.
We discover to our satisfaction that we are now close to Tunel Square, where we can board a tram for our ride home. Another of my enduring memories of Istanbul is how good the public transportation system is. Turkey's national government should run so well.
People need their public squares, their parks, their open gathering places. It should be up to those who live near and depend on public spaces to say what, if anything, needs to be done with them, not up to some national leader, however powerful, who seeks to play the uber-urban redesigner without a public consultation process.
The Lincoln Memorial would never have been designed by Lincoln. Prime ministers, like Presidents, should have more important things to do. And people everywhere should have a say in the decisions that shape their everyday world.