Istanbul sheds its historic image and marches boldly into the future
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 recently in a stadium built in line with safety codes imposed after 1999 quakes in northwestern 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 structural engineers 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 past 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.
Istanbul’s rapid transformation began in the early 1980s, when Turkey, then in the grip of the military, opened the economy.
Development was unleashed; urban immigration, too. Many of those swamping the cities were poor, ethnic Kurds who fled conflict between the army and Kurdish rebels in the rural southeast.
David Cuthell, whose father was the American consul general in Istanbul around 1960, remembers a city of perhaps 2 million that was steeped in deprivation and traditional values.
“It was where people handed down their shoes to their younger siblings and the girls didn’t go to school after about sixth grade. It was something out of the American 19th century and the British 19th century,” said Mr. Cuthell, an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University in New York City.
Travelers now remark about Istanbul’s ferment, which contrasts with the economic torpor in Europe. Even longtime residents might see a new office building off a main highway and do a double-take, wondering how it popped up so fast.
Split between Europe and Asia, the city flaunts a rich menu of museums and palaces from a past that was derided by Turkey’s secular founders.
A massive aquarium opened last year. A Rembrandt exhibit is showing now; Ottoman-style calligraphy is gaining popularity. A film festival starts at the end of March.