Istanbul may be 3,000 years old but it's newer than Los Angeles. Less than three percent of it dates from before 1950. This 100km megalopolis is home to nearly 15 million people, and that population is doubling every decade, giving Europe its only prospect of the supercities of the Far East or Latin America. But in contrast to Mumbai or São Paolo, one of Istanbul's great achievements is that it has managed to absorb waves of rural migrants without creating slums. However, things are changing. Now in thrall to a neoliberal idea of the city as a place governed by private interests and property values, Istanbul is at war with its recent history. And it is paying the price in uprooted communities and a citizenry that is polarising fast.
16 January 2010. The night sky above Istanbul is fizzing with fireworks. In Taksim Square, Turkey's favourite pop star, Tarkan, is performing to a sea of bouncing fans. Across the city, celebrations are marking the start of Istanbul's year as European Capital of Culture. It's the kind of recognition Turkey has been craving for decades.
The idea of Istanbul as a European city, a gateway city, is crucial to its self-image, even as Turkey looks ever more north (to Russia) and east (to Central Asia) in its business interests. But the city is changing fast, and as it changes it is losing one of the qualities that has defined it – its informality. More than half the buildings in Istanbul were built illegally. Since the 1950s, successive waves of immigrants have gained access to the city, settling illegally and improving their housing stock with each generation, creating decent neighbourhoods with schools and safe streets. They're not beautiful, perhaps – most of Istanbul's housing is thrown up by builders in pragmatic style, and have never seen an architect – but they are healthy, livable communities.
3 November 2009. Strolling in Karanfilköy, you can see how that process started. Here, 1950s bungalows are surrounded by homesteaders' gardens. In many ways it's a Middle Englishman's dream. Known as "geçekondu" – meaning "arrived at night", a reference to the migrants themselves – there are few of these places left. Suburban in feel, there's no place for them in a city that is denser than Shanghai, so they are occasional flashpoints. The municipality wants the residents off this valuable land.
4 November 2009. Istanbul is hosting the Urban Age conference, and exposing itself to scrutiny by a coterie of experts. One of the conference subplots is a certain wistfulness about the effects of free market economics on cities. The sociologist Saskia Sassen remarks that "the neoliberal project has been devastating". By neoliberalism she means privatisation, the handing-over of rights and responsibilities to developers and corporations. It is ironic that the Turkish government, under the conservative Islamic AKP, has been so successful at adopting these Western laissez-faire policies, since it was voted in by the same rural immigrants now being disenfranchised by them.
In Turkey the majority of the land is government-owned. In recent years, however, the municipal mayors have been selling it off to developers. Now the focus is on regeneration and gentrification, which may benefit the city's urban fabric but often at the expense of its residents. The map is studded with signature developments, from Jon Jerde's recent Kanyon mall in Levent to a massive morphed masterplan proposed by Zaha Hadid (but currently on hold) in Kartal, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Also in Levent, a new skyscraper called Sapphire Tower emblematises the city's ambitions. It was designed by Tabanlioglu Architects, recently revealed to be the most profitable practice in the world – a statistic that speaks volumes about the remunerative potential of development in Istanbul. Sapphire Tower is one the city's tallest buildings, a blue-glass shaft with skirts at the base, sky gardens, a golf room and other accoutrements of the luxury building portfolio. Ironically, it is owned by a supermarket magnate whose local Kiler shops are frequented by people who wouldn't be allowed into the tower. This is the new Istanbul, where the mayors themselves often benefit personally from such developments. No wonder there's a perception that they now care more about the image of the city, with its boutique hotels and Western luxury brands, than they do about its citizens.
One of Sulukule's residents
8 May 2009. Bulldozers are tearing down houses in Sulukule. There are signs posted on some reassuring the dozer drivers that they are not liable for any harm that comes to stubborn residents. The municipality is demonstrating that it can shift a recalcitrant community without too many scruples.
Now notorious, Sulukule is a ramshackle but lively neighbourhood of old wooden houses that has been home to a Roma community for hundreds of years, as well as a bawdy scene of traditional gypsy music taverns. It's dirt poor but the real problem with Sulukule is that it's too central for the municipality's liking. Located on valuable turf inside the ancient city walls, it's prime gentrification territory. In the 1990s the area was targeted with a strategic campaign to close down the music halls: first strangle the culture, then serve the eviction notices. The Roma held on as long as they could, with other citizens joining a resistance campaign, but then the bulldozers showed up for work. Crunch.
5 November 2009. Sulukule looks like Little Dresden. About half a dozen houses remain, rickety tombstones in a field of rubble. They are uninhabitable, shorn of crucial outer walls. Except one, which is immaculate under fresh coats of white and pink emulsion. Inside, Sezer Taninmis is serving tea. Her children's laundry is strung out over a hillock that used to be her neighbour's house. She isn't going anywhere. With the help of local architect Asli Ingin, Sezer's house was reprieved and restored, turning her into one lucky anomaly. Most of her 5,000 fellow residents have been relocated 30 miles to the north. The new Sulukule of modern-Ottoman apartments will be much less dense. It's a tidier, bourgeois version of what was here. In true neoliberal style, it will maximise the capital value of the land and completely forsake the social value.
6 November 2009. At the Urban Age conference, sociologist Richard Sennett is arguing for a less brutal approach to regeneration. Drastic surgery, he says, "is always performed in the interests and often by big business ... It often assumes that because decay has occurred we need a change of population, whereas the citizens are capable of regenerating themselves." In a rare moment of dissent against the municipal government, a community group leader, Erdogan Yildiz, complains that "people here are just treated like city furniture, and it's not acceptable ... the government is only interested in having rich people here."
It's as though the municipality fails to recognise that what has made Istanbul such a success in the last two decades is its ability to absorb migrants of every economic stratum. That its ethnic diversity and economic heterogeneity are what make it rich.
Sulukule sets an uncomfortable precedent for other areas of the city that are not quite living up to Istanbul's new self-image. Tarlabaşi, for instance, in the historical district of Beyoglu, runs right up to Taksim Square, the official heart of the city. This dense warren of narrow streets lined with once-handsome Ottoman-era buildings is now a slum. It's the centre of Istanbul's sex and drug trades, and a no-go area. The houses are graffitied and broken-windowed, many look like they're about to fall down, and some are being squatted. Once it was a respectable Greek and Armenian neighbourhood but in the mid 20th century it became a sinkhole for all kinds of illegal immigrants – Kurds, Roma, Africans. These days it's a tense place. The city has designs on it, and Tarlabaşi's residents may be forced out so that it can be regenerated. The periphery will be the only place for them, creating the same rim of impoverishment that dogs cities in, say, France or Italy.
A young architect, Çan Altay, points out that there are extremely organised informal economies in Tarlabaşi that do the city good. One of them is garbage collection and recycling. Rubbish is collected before the city gets to it and processed in basement shops before being sold on. "It's a successful form of urban intervention," says Altay, "a parasitism that benefits the organism."
Sapphire Tower, by Tabanlioglu Architects
5 July 2008. There is a hole in Istanbul. It's a weird phenomenon, the accidental byproduct of the property boom. In Ataşehir, on the Asian side of the city, is a forest of new tower blocks, the same ones you see on city outskirts everywhere (although here, with a Dubai flourish, the developers have plugged in a few incongruous palm trees that haven't taken root very well). This is how Istanbul is replacing its recent tradition of informal housing. And it's not even social housing, it's for middle-class professionals. Seventy percent of Istanbul's white-collar workers live on the Asian side, crossing the Bosporus everyday to Europe, which holds 85 percent of the office space.
Unwittingly, the tower blocks of Ataşehir delineate the hole. The way the parcels of land have been sold off has left a lacuna in the city fabric, a vast empty patch, walled in, the way the apartment blocks of Manhattan enclose Central Park. Only this is wasteland, a scrub landscape roamed by wild dogs and strafed by flies. I make my way in through a torn chainlink fence and along a raised waterpipe – it's that or take my life in my hands by dashing across the Trans-European Motorway. Crossing this accidental non-park feels like being in the Zone in Tarkovsky's Stalker. There's a gypsy family camping here, otherwise the only signs of settlement are a few concrete skeletons of two-storey houses never to be completed. You see these all over the Middle East, monuments to a modest yet aborted ambition. Near the northern edge there's an empty swimming pool with a fig tree growing out of it.
Who knows if it's still there. The great land sale continues apace and these towers sprout as fast as weeds. Perhaps the families who once enjoyed a twelfth-floor open aspect onto a genuine piece of Anatolian steppe now look out into their neighbour's window.
Gulensu residents sell their produce
A street in Tarlabasi
The 19th-century fabric of Tarlabasi is dilapidated
An original geçekondu neighbourhood in Gulensu