Istanbul’s position at the crossroads of two continents is increasingly precarious, with violent conflicts erupting in Syria and Iraq to the south and Russia and the Ukraine to the north. Domestically, electoral victories in 2014 by the country’s longtime ruling party demoralized those energized by last year’s mass anti-government protests. But neither strife nor political stagnation seems to prevent forward-looking initiatives from cropping up all around Istanbul. Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation recently opened its latest Studio-X outpost in the central Tophane neighborhood, promising to serve as a laboratory for urban solutions in the fast-developing city. Meanwhile, homegrown initiative Gastronomika has drawn thousands to innovative culinary events as part of its quest to shape a Turkish food movement along the lines of the new Nordic cuisine, while ATÖLYE Istanbul, Turkey’s first maker space, is busy preparing for the country’s inaugural Mini Maker Faire, to be held this month—all proof that amid growing instability in the region, this ancient city still has plenty to give.
Hub for progress
Istanbul-based startup accelerator and seed investor Etohum (tohum means “seed” in Turkish) has lead the way in leveraging Turkey’s entrepreneurial spirit with hopes of becoming the latest global successor to Silicon Valley. In addition to training and mentoring 40 startups each year, Etohum hosts the annual Startup Turkey and Startup Istanbul tech networking conferences, which bring entrepreneurs and investors from Europe and Asia together with Turkish startups in the hope of producing another Yemeksepeti.com. The now ubiquitous food ordering website has been one of Istanbul’s biggest online success stories, receiving $44 million in private equity in 2012 to expand across the region.
With local government offering paltry opportunities for citizen participation and most mass media biased toward one political ideology or another, people in Turkey have started taking matters into their own hands. The nonpartisan volunteer organization Oy ve Ötesi (“Vote and Beyond”), founded in the wake of last year’s anti-government protests, works to increase voter turnout, especially among young people, and monitors polling places during elections. Another citizen initiative, 140journos, has drawn global acclaim by using Twitter to verify and disseminate volunteer news gatherers’ firsthand reports on protests, traffic accidents, and other occurrences around Istanbul and Turkey.
Soaring rents and increased tourism in longtime bohemian stronghold Beyoğlu have driven creative types across the Bosphorus to Kadıköy, where a youthful café culture and bar scene now thrives. The Don Quixote Social Center, dubbed “Istanbul’s first squat” and the Halka Art Project both offer spaces for artistic expression and community engagement, hosting exhibitions, concerts, neighborhood forums, yoga classes, urban gardening workshops, talks, and film screenings. Meanwhile, the Komşu Kafe Collective is a vegan-friendly gathering space with a social conscience and a pay-what-you-can philosophy.
The Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, which started in central Istanbul and drew in some 3 million people around the country, were eventually quashed with tear gas and water cannons. However, the community spirit and political consciousness rediscovered during the demonstrations remain alive and well. Empty lots have sprouted small community gardens, new political parties have formed, and the annual gay pride parade continues to draw large, supportive crowds. The creativity and humor displayed during Gezi showed itself once again this spring as people protested new reforms to block social networking sites by posting DNS setting changes, VPN recommendations, and other ways to circumvent the government.
From the world’s second-oldest underground train—the Tünel funicular, opened in 1875—to the Marmaray underwater rail link between the city’s European and Asian sides, in its first full year of use and part of an ambitious rail expansion still underway, Istanbul boasts plenty of public transit innovations. However, one of the city’s less high tech options remains a favorite among locals. Traveling between the two continents on a city-run ferry with million-dollar views for less than $2 remains one of the city’s most delightful ways to get around.
Whether it’s the Bosphorus shorefront, a city park, or a highway median strip, any patch of open ground is fair game in good weather for space-starved city residents ready to descend with mangal in hand. (A mangal is a portable grill.) Outdoor sports are less common, through slowly growing in popularity thanks in large part to the efforts of Adım Adım, a sporting group that organizes weekly runs in the Belgrade Forest north of Istanbul. The group’s runners, swimmers, and cyclists have raised more than $2 million for Turkish charities while participating in races across the city and the country.
The steady trickle of migrants from Africa, Central Asia, and other regions has grown significantly in the last year due to the ongoing conflict in Syria. More than 300,000 refugees from the area are now in Istanbul, many living on the street or in squalid, crowded dwellings. As tensions flare over their increasingly visible presence in the city, initiatives like Small Projects Istanbul have cropped up to help support newcomers and increase their self-sufficiency. Run by a mixed groups of Turks and foreign residents, Small Projects organizes fundraisers, clothing and blanket drives, free classes, and tutoring for refugees.
Turks work some of the longest hours—six-day workweeks are the norm in many industries. However, many still seem to find the time to socialize with family and friends, be it over a glass of rakı (a local anise-flavored liquor), a tulip-shaped cup of traditional black çay (tea), or a puff of nargile (hookah). Turks also take their holiday time seriously: From a humble cottage to a luxurious villa, many Istanbul families have a yazlık (summer house) to escape to as often as they can, leaving the city at its quietest and most peaceful during major holidays.
Jennifer Hattam is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist who loves exploring the city’s hidden corners and telling its many stories. Originally from San Francisco, she thinks a summer boat ride on the Bosphorus just about makes up for her adopted hometown’s lack of parks and trees.