The Neoliberal Green Space

Turkey’s working-class gardens are under attack from elite developers.

Bostans in Istanbul's Eyüp Valley (1937). Nicholas Artamonoff / Dumbarton Oaks

We are standing in the garden of Istanbul’s Piyale Paşa Mosque, surrounded by scents of mint and chamomile and the faint sound of Turkish pop music, talking with two women wearing rubber gardening clogs. This space has been used to grow produce for local markets since the sixteenth century, but in less than a month it will be destroyed as part of a development project in the neighborhood of Kasımpaşa. The gardeners were told it will be turned into a parking lot.

Turkey is in the midst of a major construction boom. Entire neighborhoods are being emptied of inhabitants and demolished to create blank slates for municipal or private development. The 2013 protests against plans to replace Gezi Park with a shopping mall, and the violent police response they generated (seven protesters were killed and over eight thousand were injured; fourteen people lost an eye), received international media attention and successfully halted the shopping mall plan. But aggressive development continues, and as of last year at least thirty-two new shopping malls were being planned throughout Istanbul.

In August 2013, as the Gezi protests died down, a smaller, less publicized struggle broke out in Yedikule, a working-class neighborhood located along the ancient city walls. Yedikule houses one of the last remaining complexes of market gardens in Istanbul.

Such gardens — known as bostans in Turkish — were built in the Ottoman period around stone wells that drew groundwater. These were not aristocratic pleasure gardens but rather efficiently designed, highly productive produce farms that played a crucial role in supplying Istanbul’s markets and feeding its population until well into the twentieth century. The market gardens took up a significant portion of land in the city, and were historically worked by migrant peasants from the Balkans, followed by Black Sea emigrés in recent years.

Istanbul’s bostans are a paradigm that is difficult to grasp today: working-class, professional farmers performing their essential labor in the heart of the city. They began disappearing after World War II, and the remaining handful look set to disappear within a decade.

The Piyale Paşa Mosque was built between 1565 and 1573, named for the Ottoman admiral who commissioned it. Its endowment deed describes the land where it was built as a garden with fruit trees, suggesting the garden predates the mosque itself.

Pairing a mosque with a market garden was common in Ottoman times, but now Piyale Paşa is the last remaining example in Istanbul of such an arrangement. It is nestled in a valley formerly known as the Valley of the Kasımpaşa Stream, which used to flow from the hills north of Istanbul all the way down into the Golden Horn. Groundwater that collected in the valley supplied the stone well, which is still used by the gardeners as their primary means of irrigation. The Kasımpaşa stream was covered up in the 1980s by a highway that now winds along its former path, perpetually congested with cars. Now the garden will be destroyed too, the well filled up with concrete.

The Piyale Paşa garden is located on a sunken plot on the eastern side of the mosque, bordered on one side by the row of ablution fountains. A valley within a valley, it is a bit smaller than a soccer field. As you walk down the stairs that lead to it, the sound of traffic recedes. The rows upon rows of rectangular planting beds are bordered by furrows that the gardeners break open to allow water to flow into the beds, then close up again.

The beds contain a stunning variety of greens: mint, parsley, black cabbage, purslane, lettuce, and a kind of sorrel known as kuzukulak, or “ear of lamb,” which tastes like it was just soaked in lemon. Nettle and mallow grow wild in the corners, as do other edible weeds like dill, chamomile, and orach, a spinach-like plant that was eaten widely in Byzantine times but rarely today.

The gardeners are also intentionally letting some plants, like onions, grow wild in order to harvest their seeds. Over a dozen trees grow along the periphery: cherry, pomegranate, mulberry, plum, peach, quince, acacia, walnut. The garden’s heart is the well, hidden beneath a coppice of mature fig trees, which provides a shady place for the gardeners to sit and store their crates.

The land is rented by Cemile and Mehmet Özan, sixty-one and sixty, respectively. The Özans were seasonal workers who used to travel to Istanbul intermittently from their village — Shem Pazar, in the Black Sea region — to sell crops and work at the bostans. They settled permanently in Istanbul fifteen years ago, and work in the garden full time, along with their two sons, daughters-in-law, and other relatives. They also live there, in a wooden shack lined with grapevines.

The Özan’s clientele comes from the surrounding Kasımpaşa neighborhood, which is working-class and conservative. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was born there, and its residents heavily support him.

Last year, the three Albanian brothers who previously owned the land where the bostan is located sold it to the municipality. When the Özans attempted to transfer their rent, the city refused to accept it, and told them to stop paying. Last month, municipal representatives visited them in the garden and told them they had a month to leave; since they are no longer paying rent on the land, they are now considered squatters.

The Özan’s experience fits the same pattern — murky development deals, expropriation, eviction — by which other bostans have been destroyed, some replaced by expensive gated communities. In July 2013 city bulldozers arrived at the Yedikule gardens and began leveling the fields as gardeners rushed about, frantically trying to harvest their crops.

Activists like Harvard professor and Istanbul native Cemal Kafadar began a campaign to support the gardeners, arguing that the gardens were a living connection to Ottoman agricultural history. Still energized by the success of the Gezi protests, the activists managed to fend off the bulldozers, though they left two gardens destroyed and another badly damaged.

Ironically, the government initially countered the Yedikule protesters by claiming that it merely intended to replace the gardens with public parkland. Touting a fabulous new “green space,” it parroted the demands of the Gezi protesters, but now conflated them with the rhetoric of urban development. The Yedikule neighborhood was depicted as dangerous and in need of improvement, and the migrant produce gardens as backward or embarrassing.

The new narrative of preservation does not necessarily mean safeguarding the livelihoods of the gardeners. Having its bostans recognized for their historical value has actually made Yedikule vulnerable to gentrification, especially considering its location along the ancient Theodosian city wall, a Unesco world heritage site. In the past decade, several working-class neighborhoods along the wall have been destroyed — usually under the pretense of protecting the landmark.

The destruction began after 2006, when a legal change gave the government increased authority to rezone and expropriate neighborhoods in areas it deemed historic, or whose buildings it deemed unsafe. The following year, a Roma neighborhood along the wall named Sulukule was bulldozed and replaced with a gated community. Most recently slated for “improvement” is Mevlanakapi, a working-class neighborhood near Yedikule, whose residents began receiving eviction notices in 2014. As with Yedikule, the government claimed it planned to turn the area into a parkland.

Likewise, the development plan for the Kasımpaşa neighborhood that will destroy the Piyale Paşa bostan contains a park. Just across the highway, an $800 million development project called Piyalepaşa Istanbul will erase the working-class Hacı Hüsrev neighborhood, 48 percent of which will be turned into “green space.”

While nature has long been a means for humans to sustain themselves, as a signifier of purity, energy, wellbeing, and eco-consciousness, nature also makes for a powerful marketing tool. Thus it is increasingly used as a vehicle for architectural projects and development schemes. A telling recent example is the Bosco Verticale or “vertical forest,” a pair of apartment skyscrapers under construction in Milan whose balconies will contain 2.5 acres of forest. (It won the 2014 International Highrise Award.)

Another are the vertical gardens — also known as living walls or green walls — first promoted in the late 1980s by Patrick Blanc and now ubiquitous in architectural projects around the world, from airports (Edmonton, Singapore, Mumbai) to office buildings and shopping malls. The largest vertical garden in Europe was completed last month June in Warwick, England at the headquarters of the National Grid, a power company. In Istanbul, a green wall is being built along the E5 highway that connects the city with its suburbs to the south.

Nature is thus no longer merely consumed, but produced as an aesthetic that increases the happiness of consumers.

As forests merge with skyscrapers and mall exteriors are “watered,” urban farming is clearly back. In truth, it was hardly ever gone. The notion of agriculture as a strictly rural phenomenon did not set in until the late twentieth century: city dwellers have always grown food, especially during wars or times of economic crisis. Impoverished residents of Detroit were instructed in 1893 by their mayor, Hazen Pingree, to grow vegetables in vacant lots, which became known as “Pingree’s Potato Patches.” Woodrow Wilson told Americans to grow their own food during World War I. During World War II, as Paris struggled to feed its citizens, large quantities of leeks were grown outside the Louvre.

Rather than providing basic sustenance, however, the current enthusiasm for urban gardening has emerged at least partly as a consumer reaction to the labor and environmental practices of industrial agriculture. Most new urban gardens today are kept for pleasure or personal nutritional enhancement.

They also frequently have an element of self-fashioning, in part because nature, seen as the opposite of capitalism, signifies innocence from it. Fruits and vegetables are treasured and fetishized on Instagram; a sliced onion, its purple concentric rings lovingly photographed, evokes the wondrous order of nature. Backyard and boutique vegetable gardens cultivate the illusion of an Eden where nature and commerce are separate entities, allowing those who can afford the time and space to garden to brand themselves as virtuous nonconsumers.

Moreover, in cities with a high influx of capital and without stabilized rents, there tends to be a reciprocal relationship between new “green spaces” and gentrification. Rooftop gardens have become a multi-million-dollar industry, proliferating under the encouragement of tax abatement programs, even as rooftops themselves are increasingly privatized and inaccessible.

The greenwashing of gentrification is reaching its logical conclusion in Detroit, where farming is touted as a solution to urban blight. In 2011, the city expropriated vast swaths of land and sold it to Hantz, which buys up land from poor residents and demolishes their homes. While thousands have their water shut off, money in Detroit, it seems, can be grown on trees.

The Piyale Paşa garden probably won’t be saved. A few weeks ago, a large barrier went up around it indicating construction was about to begin. Attempts at large-scale activism or resistance by “Gezi types” are unlikely to be supported by the Kasımpaşa neighborhood, an Erdoğan stronghold.

As for the Yedikule gardens, if the neighborhood continues its dramatic gentrification, it is hard to imagine that the gardens will remain as they are. Most likely they will be transformed into parkland — or community gardens for the new residents. This is what happened recently to another bostan known as the “Ilya” garden after the Greek immigrant who farmed it for forty years. Ilya died in the late 1970s, and the next tenant lost control of the land.

A twenty-year battle with developers over the garden’s fate ensued. This spring, it was resolved when the bostan was parceled out into community gardens. Celebrated by many as a victory for urban gardening, the new mini-gardens are tended by members of the community, middle-class urbanites for whom gardening is a hobby. Many of them are neglected and going to seed. Meanwhile, the old tenant, an immigrant from the Black Sea region, earns a reduced income selling imported fruits and vegetables nearby.

Istanbul’s bostans preserve an alternative model for urban gardening: one that provides a living for professional small farmers, who supply their communities with produce and have relative autonomy over the spaces they cultivate. That this livelihood is being destroyed right as gardens are becoming fetish objects in the urban imagination might seem ironic — but it is perfectly compatible with the rise of the neoliberal green space.