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Live From Istanbul: Authoritarians With Bad Taste

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Anti-government protests in Turkey have produced a social movement like no other. The lit match was not the death of a heroic dissident, a corrupt election, high unemployment or the other usual-suspect grievances. It was the government's plan to replace precious park space in downtown Istanbul with a shopping mall and replica of army barracks from the Ottoman era.    

The discontent also reflects growing cultural and political tensions. The demonstrators are members of the modern, secular Turkey. The government is Islamic-oriented, appealing to traditional people -- and it's doing such retrograde things as leveling historic poor neighborhoods to build "gated communities." This ruthless urban renewal disturbs many modern Turks as evidence of the growing authoritarian leanings of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They see both piety and piles of money being baked into one unsavory cake.    

One shouldn't call these political concerns a "deeper cause" of unrest than the impending loss of a park, because threatening a public space is a deep cause, indeed. Taksim Gezi Park remains a rare square of green in a bustling city being overwhelmed by big-money development.    

When you mess with a public space, you're messing with a culture. A prominent Turkish historian is calling the government's vision "a Las Vegas of Ottoman splendor." (In defense of Las Vegas, the desert city built its pretend Venice and Paris on low-density land.)    

Authoritarians and good taste don't necessarily mix. In the 1980s, Romania's monster dictator Nicolae Ceausescu bulldozed centuries-old villages and the grapevines climbing their walls. He moved the people into new concrete apartment blocks. Ceausescu's overthrow and execution saved untold unique townscapes.    

The communist revolutionaries taking over China in 1942 had big plans to destroy Beijing's ancient city. An architect, Lin Huiyin, reportedly warned them at the time, "One day you will regret it, and you'll end up building a fake antique in its place."    

Mao Zedong did flatten most of the city's 500-year-old wall, replacing it with a road. Sure enough, about 10 years ago, the city started building an imitation old wall to resemble the ancient one.    

For authoritarians, urban renewal is often a thinly veiled means of controlling people and weakening societies they seek to subjugate. In a hideous act of cultural aggression, China is now attacking the ancient heart of Tibet's capital with commercial development.    

Steps from the sacred Buddhist Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, it's building a 500,000-square-foot shopping center and underground parking lot. It further expects to replace current residents and old shops with bars and art galleries. China's makeover of Tibet's capital has been called "tourist colonialism."  

China has already turned some of its own ancient metropolises -- Lijiang in Yunnan, for one -- into magnets for industrial-strength tourism. Lijiang was renamed Shangri-La.    

Shangri-La is a mythical paradise hidden in the mountains of Tibet. The city of Lhasa is neither fictional nor utopian, but the ancient quarter is magical. So it's not a great stretch to say -- borrowing from Joni Mitchell -- that China plans to literally pave paradise and put up a parking lot.    

The situation in Istanbul seems less about wanton cultural destruction than cultural ignorance. Turkish sophisticates see the assault on the old urban fabric as an invasion of uneducated peasants from Anatolia, suddenly flush with money but not taste. These are Erdogan's people, and so the conflict opens a jack-in-the-box of political, religious, regional and urban-vs.-rural intrigue.  
Cosmopolitans in America and Europe can sympathize with their Istanbul counterparts, as waves of outside money wash over funky old neighborhoods -- often erasing the very charm that drew newcomers there in the first place. Call it urban-planning malpractice. Call it dumb gentrification. The results tend to be cheesy, if not tragic.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @fromaharrop.



See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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