Gezi Park: A Big History For a Small Space

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We think it’s fair to say that if Gezi Park was capable of emotions, it may be a little taken aback by the past week’s events. Not only the violent uprooting of its trees as the diggers moved in, but also the outpouring of love, from Istanbul, Turkey and the world for what was previously an appreciated but modest green space, unassumedly residing in the heart of Istanbul. That is not to say it hasn’t seen any action before. In fact it has been the site of rebellions, fires, football matches and controversy, changing roles a number of times in recent history.

 

Military Barracks: Soldiers, Rebellions and Acrobatic Shows

In 1806, under the reign of Selim III, and the ‘Tophane Müşiri,’(army commander) Halil Paşa, the Taksim Military Barracks (aka Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks) were built. They were designed by Krikor Balyan, an ethnic Armenian who came from a famous family of Ottoman imperial architects. This grand building, which was Ottoman, Russian and Indian in style, dramatically affected the character of Taksim. It had long wings and a wide courtyard that aside from its military function was used for a variety of activities including acrobatic shows, horse races or accommodation of Greek pilgrims.

 

Over the years the building suffered damage a number of times, firstly during the troubles of the 1807 Kabakçı Rebellion, and later from fires during the Sultan Abdulaziz period. Afterwards, it was repaired extensively in an Oriental style that overhauled the barracks, central courtyard, mosque, corner towers, dome and crown door. However, it undwent considerable damage once more during the 31 March Incident in 1909 – a rebellion which led to the change of Grand Vizier - and then remained in a state of disrepair.

 

Taksim Stadium: Making Football History

No longer used for military purposes, it was sold to the Ottoman National Company for Industry and Trade in 1913, and became a site of public events. In 1921 it was turned into the Taksim Stadium, the first football stadium in Turkey which was home to all of Istanbul’s major football clubs, with a seating capacity of around 8000. The Turkish national team’s first ever match (after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923) was also held there against Romania, resulting in a 2-2 draw. It was also used for other sports such as wrestling, athletics and equestrian competitions. Yet, during the First World War it was partially abandoned and then later reserved for Senegalese soldiers serving under the French forces during the Occupation of Constantinople.

 

Henri Prost: Urban Transformation

It was transformed completely in the mid-20th century when Atatürk invited the French urban planner, Henri Prost to prepare a master plan and development report for Istanbul. His plans gave priority to modernizing the city, renovating it as a necessity after the damage it had suffered and providing better living conditions for its residents. Under the mayorship of Lütfü Kırdar, Prost set out a plan to radically alter Taksim, by demolishing the iconic barracks.

 

In their place would be residential and social buildings with a green space that stretched from Taksim to Harbiye. The Inönü Esplanade (named after the President İsmet İnönü) would be the starting point of ‘Park No. 2’, also known as the Boulogne Woods of Istanbul and designed to be the lungs of the residential area. The İnönü Esplanade that we now know as Gezi Park was to be a green promenade, leading to the park that would provide about 30 hectares of green space between Taksim, Nişantaşı and Maçka, including the Dolmabahçe Valley.

 

The barracks were demolished in four stages that began in 1940. The timing of this was criticized as they could have been used to house refugees from World War II. However the mayor, Lütfü Kırdar, went ahead with the plans and, although many of Prost’s original plans changed, the İnönü Park was completed in 1943. It has remained a park ever since, providing a welcome green space in amongst the high rise hotels and busy roads that surround it.

 

Another Shopping Mall: The Final Straw

Yet the Government had other plans. Rather than leaving it as a much needed breathing spot, which are unfortunately few and far between in this densely populated city, plans were drawn up to build on the space. It was to be part of the Taksim redevelopment plan, an urban project proposed without public participation or consultation. Images were released showing the recreation of the former military barracks in the same style but housing a shopping mall.

 

This proved too much for activists, still smarting from the very recent demolition of the historic Emek Cinema, for another mall. Nevertheless, although petitions were signed and protest groups formed, it seemed the proposals could not be stopped. At the end of May the first trees were felled, but the protesters refused to abandon their park. This determination was met with brutal police tactics, which in turn inspired thousands of people to stand up for their city, their spaces and their right to protest peacefully.

 

Activists remain in the park, night after night, refusing to give in. A court has agreed to hear the case against the development and ordered a temporary stop on further demolition. The heavy machinery used for its destruction remains on the site, abandoned and vandalized in anger. On June 5, deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, has agreed to meet with representatives of the protests whose demands include an end to park development. The future of this space, that has become a symbol for so much more,  hangs in the balance once again.

 

For our article on the protests themselves, please read: Gezi Park Protests: A Nation Stands Up

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