At first glance, Ataşehir seems to embody everything you hate about modern Istanbul. At second glance, it doesn’t get much better.
You can insert here the usual litany – or stream of curses – at the obligatory shopping centers purveying the same goods; the overpriced cafes and restaurants; the high-rises and skyscrapers that in the past decade have run rampage over this once empty, verdant green countryside on the city’s sprawling Asian side.
“Hard to believe,” people over here will tell you. “But just a decade – call it 15 years ago – this place was virtually farmland. There was nothing here, except green hillsides, as far as the eye could see. And now –“
And now … well, you can finish this sentence in a lot of ways, depending on who you talk to.
Developers would say, “ – and now, James, it’s one of the fastest-growing real estate markets in the ‘Bul.”
“It’s a growing opportunity for English in-company lessons,” school directors would say.
“It’s soon to be the Turkish ‘Wall Street,” boosterism-minded business journals enthuse.
(Indeed, the towers of the Istanbul Finans Merkezi, set to open in the next couple years, are going up right outside the school where I teach on Ataşehir Bulvar.)
“It’s just a dumping ground for the pork and favoritism in the public sector, evidence of the city’s insatiable appetite for construction,” declaim environmentalists, outraged over Istanbul’s ever-diminishing green spaces.
It’s a mess; it’s a madhouse: a madhouse with no soul, my poet-philosopher friends say. No, they go on: It’s a madhouse where the souls were long-ago consigned to the 16-hour workday to pay off inflated mortgages, and to feeding the hungry cells of the city’s ever-expanding traffic matrix.
All of these glittering testimonials and damnations are true, depending on your perspective. Ataşehir is what you make of it. The same could be said of its sister district, Ümraniye, which has sprung up with equal determination and inexplicable swiftness just a few minutes’ drive down the road. From a distance, they would seem almost mirror images. What do they signify? Are they images of the city’s ever-rising ambitions, or of avarice and hubris?
Whatever they are, they are on the move, indistinguishable from a score of other commercial-residential districts eating up the city’s outskirts.
On many of the buildings in progress, on billboards and over new overpasses, hang red-and-white banners announcing the coming referendum. “EVET,” they all say: EVET is the only answer, the only decision, of the youth, of the nation, of the future.
They seem almost like a bugle-call, a clarion, these banners: Let us have more skyscrapers, tunnels, bridges, they shout. Let us have more Ataşehirs and Ümraniyes! For they are new and new means growth, progress.
Well, we will have more of them, you can be sure about that.
The question is, where where will it all end? While Sultanahmet, Beyğölu, Kadıköy may be Istanbul’s past, it is Ataşehir, Ümraniye – and you could keep going until you reach Kartal and Pendik, and beyond – that are the city’s future.
That’s fine, I suppose. But is there any soul to be found in this new city?
Let’s go back a little. First of all, what’s in a name? Perhaps they can offer clues.
“What does ‘Ataşehir’ mean?” I asked Ayşe, our operations manager.
She looked at me blankly for a moment.
“I know ‘şehir’ means ‘city,’” I went on. “But ‘Ata?’”
“You know ‘Ata,’” Ayşe said. “We use it for boy’s names. I know boys named Ata.”
“Oh, so it basically means “Ata’s City – like Jonestown, or Coopersville.”
“Yes, like that.”
Well, you heard it. Does that help? It does, in a way. Especially when you think of the meaning of the sister district, Ümraniye, which means “hope” in Turkish. So you have one district named the way a proud father would name his first-born son, and you have the other given the more feminine sounding word of hope.
Optimism – a sentiment we attach to all newborns, as well as to the great child of them all, the future. From now on, I will think of Ataşehir and Ümraniye as siblings – a boy and a girl. If there is not a soul to be found, then at least let us have symmetry.
It makes a bit more sense now.
You could say that this place is not necessarily lacking in soul then; maybe like all young children, what it is missing is a bit of character that comes with maturity – and guidance. (Guidance: shit, where the hell does anybody find guidance in this city – even we yabancılar had the good sense to throw away our guide books about five minutes after we arrived).
Ataşehir and Umranye: The City’s New Hope. Sounds like a science fiction-fantasy movie. And I generally despise science fiction-fantasy (no – despise is too strong; they bore me, is all). But if you can for a minute squint your eyes, survey from a certain distance on a clear day, and you see these districts in just that futuristic, fantastic way.
I mean, there are upsides to living and working here.
Back when we first started teaching lessons here, our school was still located in Suadiye. We were right on fashionable Bağdat Caddesi, and around the breezy, shady neighborhoods within a stone’s throw of the beaches at Caddebostan. On a hot, summer day, I’d often take my trunks to work, and have a quick swim to cool off and relax before my evening classes.
Going to Ataşehir, Ümraniye – sucked, to be honest. It was a necessary evil, like the traffic or the angry minibus drivers. The price you pay living in Istanbul, and having access to the city’s many off-work pleasures, such as taking the ferry boats across the Bosphorus, or gazing in wonder at the interior of the Hagia Sofia.
I never in the world imagined though that our school would ever leave Bağdat Caddesi, or that one day I would be working full time in those damned valleys of commercial enterprise full-time, five days a week.
But alas, the day arrived when the inevitable happened. Seems inevitable, anyway, looking back. More and more, we were doing business in those places. And the rents on Bağdat Caddesi were not getting any cheaper. More and more students preferred to have their lessons in company. And where are the companies? In Ataşehir and Ümraniye, for the most part.
We closed the school in Suadiye, packed everything up, and set up in a 17-story building on Ataşehir Bulvar, with the steel-and-glass countenance of the new finance center seeming to look at me with wicked, laughing eyes. Finally, your soul belongs to me! it seemed to say.
That was six months ago. And you know what? Truth be told, after the initial adjustment (and resignation that our lovely, cool “villa” in Suadiye is gone forever), it’s not so bad. My wife and I still live in Koşuyolu, and the trip from there to the school in Ataşehir only takes about thirty minutes most days, forty-five at tops. That’s not significantly longer a commute than when I was working in Suadiye.
And during the day, it’s a lot easier getting to company lessons, since we’re a lot closer. So I tend to spend less time endlessly starting and stopping in traffic.
One of my colleagues, a British guy, has come out really well. He found a brand new flat to rent here, about ten-minutes from the school. On nice days, he walks to work, and even to some of the companies where he teaches.
“And I found out there’s a direct dolmuş to Taksim,” he says. “So now when I finish work, if I want I can go directly to Taksim, meet friends at the James Joyce Irish Pub for pints – and it only takes about thirty minutes.”
This colleague of mine definitely has his foibles, but I would say he seems to still be in reasonable possession of his soul, as do I (touch wood!).
The same could be said, I suppose, about the city in general. Places like Ataşehir and Ümraniye are definitely not going away – expect to see more and more of them, and to probably at some point be either living or working there, if not both, especially where prices are going these days. But Istanbul has always been a city of change, of flux. When Fatih the Conqueror built the Grand Bazaar back in the 15th Century, there were no doubt those who said the city’s architectural landscape was headed for a permanent tailspin (Another shopping center! As if we needed another!).
And no doubt, it will continue to change. Who knows? In five hundred years, some tour guide will be taking tourists down this very street where I write this, and will point up. “There, the great James Tressler taught English. And that’s where he wrote many of his finest stories!”
I could live with that.
James Tressler, a teacher and writer, is the author of several books, including his latest collection of Istanbul Letters, “Living With Terror.”