Literature and urban planning: a “love letter” to Istanbul

Novels that are based in cities can illustrate the evolution of urban planning. By describing and re-creating a place, these stories can grasp details that lie beyond the scope of formal urban planning research. They might also provide, I guess, more powerful explanations than academic articles of the role of planning in a given city.  

A Strangeness in my mind, written by the 2006 Nobel Prize Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and located in Istanbul is, in my opinion, one of those novels. In a strict sense, the novel tells the life story of a street vendor and his struggles to make a living in the “big city”, failing to achieve his youth expectation of becoming rich. But I found other underlying readings. The book can also be read as a love story with a less than happy ending; the migration tale of a rural family in Istanbul; or the coming of age of an ordinary man, trying to figure out the root of his estranged mind.

Within these readings, I also think that the novel can be interpreted as a brief history of urbanism in Istanbul. One that runs from 1963 −when the father of Mevlut, the novel’s main character, begins the family’s first migration move to Istanbul along with his brother− until 2012 when the protagonist understands that he will remain in this metropolis until his last breath. The Guardian described this detailed portrait of Istanbul as a “love letter” to the city where Pamuk has spent most of this life. Coincidentally, in the book, the anti-hero Mevlut writes hundreds of love letters in his youth to the girl that haunted him with her dark eyes.

Not every novel located in a city, though, can be read through an urban planning perspective. What makes A Strangeness in my mind distinctive from other city-based stories is its focus through time on the physical and spatial changes of a city. Not only that, but it also focuses on how these changes affect the novel characters. Through the eyes of Mevlut, who walks the streets of Istanbul every day to sell his products, the reader experiences the evolution of the city’s districts, involved in the thorny process of urbanization.


Source: http://www.goodreads.com

Without alluding explicitly to any particular urban planning aspect, Pamuk draws attention to the fact that most of the characters remain helpless towards the urban modifications introduced decade by decade by the authorities, who build closer ties over the years with the construction businesses. Overall, these changes mirror the modernization of Istanbul. Sometimes, they bring nostalgia to Mevlut, his family, and friends. Other times, the comfort and technological developments brought by the city transformations, paradoxically, reduce their quality of life.

Given the profusion of urban details in the novel, here I will only provide two examples that account for gentrification and displacement.

A good education removes the barriers between rich and poor

Through the course of 50 years, Mevlut, an apolitical man, witnesses how the buildings in the city centre become higher and walking becomes more difficult due to car-driven facilities, such as parking lots. In an example of gentrification, as he moves farther each decade, Mevlut notices how poor districts adjacent to the city centre become “hip” places full of bars and cafes for the wealthy. The mosques are the only buildings that remain unchanged in the different areas of the city that Mevlut crosses throughout the years. Over time, he will stop selling boza in these areas due to the gentrified developments. Boza, by the way, is a traditional light alcoholic drink created in the Ottoman Empire days.

Although Mevlut only manages to earn a basic income from his occupation, he continues to sell boza throughout his life. During the 1990s, he visits a redeveloped district of tall apartment blocks inhabited by wealthy Westernized families. One client inquiries him mockingly about his job: “You’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, you must be rich by now”, he says. Mevlut answers that he’s not, but all his relatives that came from the rural village though are rich now. “Why?” The client insists. “Because I’m honest”, says Mevlut. The patron and the rest of his guests laugh. Before Mevlut leaves the apartment, they encourage him to continue selling boza, a job that in their view preserves the national traditions and identity.

The owner of unregistered land

Apart from gentrification, Mevlut sees in his never ending wanderings that the poor people that used to live in those districts have to relocate in the outskirts. As the population grows and migration waves continue, the hills and other border areas of the city get crammed. The city sprawling intensifies by the displacement of people from the centre to the peripheries of Istanbul. In the 2000s, Mevlut realizes that people are no longer capable of distinguishing between the boundaries of the city and the villages where he came from.

Mevlut experiences himself a subtle process of displacement. The slum in which he used to live with his father as a kid in the 1960s, without paved streets and electricity, becomes a modern area in the 2000s. Back in the 1960s, he and his father built their small house in the district of Duttepe and received an informal land title from the district’s councilor. After his father died, his cousins sold the land to Mr Vural, the boss of Duttepe. Mr Vural built the mosque and owned most of the land in Duttepe. He also was the head of a construction business.

Until the 2000s, Mevlut obtained a modest rent from his property at Duttepe. At this point and due to the developments in the district, he is asked to vacate his house to allow the construction of a new apartment building owned by Vural Holdings. In exchange, he receives one of the apartments with a rent below market price. Pamuk writes:

He observed his whole childhood, the food he’d eaten, the homework he’d done, the way things had smelled, the sound of his father grunting in his sleep, hundreds of thousands of memories all smashed to pieces in a single swipe of the bulldozer shovel.

His relatives that lived nearby had no choice but to vacate their houses and occupy the apartments. The new inhabitants of the tall building remain unhappy afterward, missing their old houses with backyards and clear views.

After reading the book, I felt that urban planning was more about improvising and fitting business desires. But that is not what the story is all about.


Source: http://www.estambul.org/plano-de-estambul

Author: Jaime Olvera Garcia, UQ PhD student, j.olveragarcia@uq.edu.au