Friday, January 7, 2011

Istanbul Thrives . . .

Leaving Istanbul in August and moving to Washington required a lot of adjustment, and memories of the city still loom clear in my mind. My first venture to Turkey placed me in Izmit as an English teacher, and though Izmit will always be a special place for me, short trips to Istanbul always supplied a boost of energy. I think this is the case for anyone coming from any city, be it in Turkey or elsewhere. Andrew Finkel captures this energy in a recent piece in The Guardian, in which the Today's Zaman columnist and long-time Istanbul resident writes of the city's transformation over the years.
"Istanbul is a country, not a city," says its mayor, Kadir Topbas, and the explanation of its modern boom is buried in the history of the past 30 years. In 1980 Istanbul could not afford the electricity to illuminate that famous skyline. The city, along with the rest of Turkey, was under martial law and there were midnight curfews and even shortages of Turkish coffee.

Since then the city has elbowed its way into the global economy. The backstreet clip joints in the European neighbourhood of Beyoglu have turned into boutique hotels, fusion eateries and world music clubs. The smoke-filled coffee houses whose patrons once scrounged for the price of a glass of tea, now serve lattes – and if you try to light up, there is a £30 fine.

At the end of the second world war, when the iron curtain came down to isolate Istanbul from the rest of Europe, only a million people lived here. Since then, the city has increased its population by that amount every 10 years. "Today's Istanbul is above all an immigrant city," says Murat Guvenc, city planner and curator of Istanbul 1910-2010, a remarkable exhibition that explains the pace of change. It is housed in santralistanbul – a converted power station more brutally chic than London's Tate Modern.
Though Orhan Pamuk writes of its romantic, melancholy feeling in Istanbul, documenting the city's malaise after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a recent study of cities around the world conducted by the Brookings Institution recognized it as the "best-performing" city in the world. Though many of its neighborhoods are still plagued by poverty as city authorities struggle to cope with the large numbers of newcomers that have arrived from Anatolia, Istanbul has weathered the financial crisis well in comparison to cities in Western Europe and the United States.

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