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Gridlock in 'Streets Paved With Gold' : Istanbul's Old Charms Fading With Pressure of Fast Growth

May 25, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Perhaps the best panorama of Istanbul is to be seen from the Galata Bridge, a grinding, creaking pontoon structure facing the Straits of Bosporus and spanning the curving inlet known as the Golden Horn.

An early morning mist lends the scene a diffuse quality, as in an aging watercolor, with the city's architectural jewels--the minarets of the Suleiman Mosque reach up like ballistic missiles--standing out against an indistinct pattern of red-tile roofs.

On the bridge itself, the picture is far closer to the reality of present-day Istanbul: four lanes of automobile and bus traffic stalled in foul-smelling gridlock, as thousands of pedestrians plod stolidly to work. Men with bathroom scales line the sidewalk offering to weigh a passer-by for a coin, while throngs of young boys with huge brass-bound boxes offer shoeshines in reasonably fluent German.

Istanbul is choking on its growth. A saying common in the Anatolian hinterland of Turkey holds that the "streets of Istanbul are paved with gold," and literally millions of people have trekked from poor rural areas to this, the industrial heart of the country.

"Before World War II, the population was around 800,000 and now there are more than 6 million people," said Sidney Noel, a Briton who has spent the past 30 years in Istanbul. "The population growth has been a dramatic change, with most of the increase in shantytowns around the city in areas which foreigners never see."

Cobblestone Streets

In addition to population growth, a Turkish car factory is now producing 100,000 vehicles a year, 40% of which end up in Istanbul, a 19th-Century city of winding cobblestone streets that was never designed to cope with modern traffic. The suspension bridge over the Bosporus, which in 1973 linked the European part of Istanbul with its neighborhoods in Asia for the first time, is now used by 140,000 cars a day. A second bridge is under construction, and traffic in the city is so bad that a third bridge is already being planned.

"Istanbul is losing a lot of its character quite quickly because of overgrowth," said Felice Ozer, a Vassar-educated architectural historian. "People come here from small villages and want to duplicate the village life style. But there is no infrastructure--sewers, water or telephones."

In the so-called "triangle" area of the oldest section of European Istanbul, a nighttime population of 400,000 swells to more than 2 million during the day, a phenomenon similar to the downtowns of such other cities as New York and Los Angeles.

Istanbul's oldest areas have such tiny, winding streets that there is usually room for only one car at a time. Businesses resort to animals--even men and boys are used as beasts of burden--to carry their goods from factories to shops.

Mayor's Brainchild

In an effort to preserve Istanbul's grandeur, the city government has embarked on a feverish urban renewal campaign. The plan is primarily the brainchild of Istanbul's mayor, a dynamic former electrical engineer named Bedrettin Dalan.

Under Dalan's leadership, the city has been dotted with parking garages, streets have been widened and tracks are being laid for a light rail tram system to ferry thousands of workers 15 miles from central Istanbul to a new industrial suburb at Ikitelli.

Ironically, until the 1960s the city's primary mode of transportation was the tram, but the tracks were ripped up because the slow trams were considered to be impeding other traffic.

Perhaps Dalan's most ambitious project is the cleanup of the Golden Horn, a $350-million slum clearance and sewage project whose aim, in the mayor's oft-quoted pledge, is to make the waters of the Golden Horn "as blue as my eyes."

6,000 Buildings Bulldozed

By city estimates, bulldozers have razed 6,000 buildings along the edges of the Golden Horn inlet. Most of them were factories and illegal slaughterhouses whose effluents had seriously polluted the water for decades, and most have been replaced by parks and playgrounds.

But Dalan has also raised a storm of controversy by sweeping away many old buildings without any attempt at conservation and with little consultation with the community.

"This new program to make Istanbul better does not take into account the old character of the city," said Celik Gulersoy, the head of Turkey's auto club, which has embarked on a restoration campaign of its own in recent years.

Gulersoy noted, for example, that in a single night bulldozers pushed down the 16th-Century building that was built as the Venetian Embassy when that city-republic was a dominant influence in the Mediterranean.

"They have totally changed the face of historic Istanbul," Gulersoy complained.

Preservation efforts are concentrated now on some of the remaining wooden houses, with their unfinished exteriors and beautiful bay windows. Hundreds of these stunning seaside wooden mansions that gave Istanbul the look of Venice have already disappeared, and now there are few remaining examples of the architectural style.

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