Relationship-Making, Scaffolding, and a Pandemic in Istanbul

This piece was going to be mainly about relation-making as a method that facilitated my fieldwork, which in turn formed the backbone of my article, “Behind the Scaffolding.” Set in Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı neighborhood, “Behind the Scaffolding” delved into the political and economic negotiations within Taksim 360, one of the first urban transformation projects led by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and their politically-linked private partners, like the firm Gap Construction. With construction ongoing since 2010, the project is still in progress with no end date on the horizon. Its underlying aim of “cleaning” Tarlabaşı—that is, removing its residents, who are largely members of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities involved in various informal economies of the city—is also in progress.

Much of what I wanted to say seems futile at this moment, as do many aspects of urban life we have taken for granted. Yet in Tarlabaşı, relationship-making emerged once again.

I was going to illustrate the seemingly divergent yet interlinked relationships that come to produce urban transformation as an open-ended process. Gap Construction, for example, uses its rapport with the AKP to squeeze more profit from the subcontractors, who are eager to have Taksim 360 on their portfolios. Yet many people, like the two construction site managers that I call Esin and Oğuz, are tasked with navigating these pressures as they work for subcontractor companies. Occupying in-between positions as construction site managers for subcontractor companies, most of their job is juggling and forging relationships: they manage the tasks workers do each day, negotiate with Gap Construction officials over costs that come up during construction, reorganize the workers’ tasks and payments according to these negotiations, and try to impress their own supervisors with the outcomes. At times, they seek to build personal relationships with AKP politicians in order to speed up the negotiations with Gap Construction with orders “from above.” And so, urban transformation unfolds on a day-to-day basis through these relations. Even I, as an ethnographer, utilized my habitus to learn more about the construction side of Taksim 360—a side that has not been easily accessible, as I came to learn that Gap Construction banned its employees from commenting on Taksim 360 to researchers or journalists. My connections dating back to my college years in Istanbul came in handy for this aspect of my fieldwork. A friend had a friend who had friends, leading me to Esin and Oğuz, and ultimately, to write “Behind the Scaffolding.”

Photograph of three people in conversation on a city street.
Image description: Two people, one wearing a pink scarf with floral patterns, a light green jacket, and a mask and the other wearing a black hat, black vest, grey sweater, gloves, and a mask, are talking to a resident who covered his entire face except his eyes with a black hat, mask, and a black scarf. The person wearing the scarf has a notebook in her hand, writing down his grocery orders, as they all stand on the street.
Caption: Fatma and Mehmet going door to door to make a shopping list for residents who cannot afford to buy groceries during April 2020. Tamer Dursun

But I write these words today amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what I wanted to say seems futile at this moment, as do many aspects of urban life we have taken for granted. Yet in Tarlabaşı, relationship-making emerged once again, as more crucial than ever in unexpected ways beyond the points I initially conceived. Most Tarlabaşı residents, as I briefly mentioned before, follow lines of work that require being in public space, such as selling rice-filled mussels or water among other forms of street vending, working back-of-house in restaurants, doing daily construction labor, or waste-picking, as well as sex work or dealing drugs. Their (already low) incomes have been immensely diminished if not entirely destroyed since early March due to state-mandated social distancing measures in Istanbul, despite the inadequacy of those measures. Throughout my fieldwork, my interlocutors often voiced the intentional shortcomings of governmental economic support, especially maintenance and infrastructural services, which had intensified since the beginnings of urban transformation. These indirect means of socially transforming the neighborhood have harsher impacts during the pandemic. They are forcing residents to focus on immediate, everyday consequences of the crisis, such as vanishing livelihoods, rather than the possible medical repercussions of the crisis.

While the AKP government hasn’t yet surprised the residents by extending such support, informal relationship networks have become the infrastructure that sustains Tarlabaşı throughout this pandemic. Mehmet and Fatma, Kurdish residents of the neighborhood for over 30 years, have been cooking large numbers of meals daily, giving them to fellow neighbors on the street. This practice is already in their repertoire: every Ramadan, Mehmet and Fatma join with others in solidarity to organize iftars on their street, bringing residents and nonresidents side-by-side to build community. Now, they have adapted this practice with masks, gloves, and admonitions against standing too close to one another—which sometimes work, oftentimes do not. Their efforts are aided by their already-existing relationships with builders coming in and out of construction sites to work. For instance, Mustafa Abi, a restaurant owner whose shop faces the scaffolding, has cultivated relationships with subcontractor supervisors over the year. He has been making phone calls to those with whom he has become close over numerous cups of tea, asking them to donate money to buy ingredients to cook for residents and to buy supplies for older residents who cannot go outside. His teenage nephews and their friends use these funds to shop for groceries and deliver them to those in need.

Photograph of people standing in line on a city street.
Image description: A man wearing a blue jeans, a white bathrobe, a white hair net, a mask, and white gloves is standing behind a blue desk, giving out food to men, women, and children lined up on the street across from him.
Caption: Mehmet giving food to his neighbors during March 2020. Fatma Yerala

The time it took to negotiate power within Taksim 360 afforded openings to residents still living around it for building interpersonal connections to shape the future of Tarlabaşı—connections that have shaped responses to the pandemic, as well. The residents with whom I worked throughout 2017–2018 developed everyday encounters into long-lasting relationships with people involved in Taksim 360—supervisors, construction workers, and employees of subcontractors—as well as with local government officials. They employed these relationships as creative ways to hold on to their properties in the face of anticipated expansions of urban transformation and to secure maintenance and services, which those expansions threatened to foreclose. Knowing someone from somewhere or having helped someone with something at some point in the past are resources through which life could be sustained in Tarlabaşı. This sustenance was not only a presentist mode of getting by, but it had future-oriented potential, with keen awareness of what the neighborhood might be like when Taksim 360 is complete. Now, these past engagements shape their responses to the present and future, which became entangled in new ways in the face of the pandemic. Current practices of relating are not ruptures that break ties with the futures that residents used to orient themselves toward, but they form a plastic continuation that accompanies presents that are considerably altered by the pandemic. And this simultaneity can form a buffering response to sustain communities, even as it does not necessarily eradicate structural asymmetries of power in a neighborhood actively being transformed.

In times of COVID-19, relationship-making still serves as a connective node between residents, builders, politicians, and ethnographers. But relationship-making also surfaces as a node of sustenance. It sustains urban communities disproportionately affected by urban change in varying intensities of contexts in flux. In times of social distancing, relationship-making morphs yet remains central. So does the need to stand in solidarity with affected communities and to join them in demanding structural change.

Alize Arıcan is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research explores the intersections between urban transformation, temporality, and care in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul.

Cite as: Arıcan, Alize. 2020. “Relationship-Making, Scaffolding, and a Pandemic in Istanbul.” Anthropology News website, June 11, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1418

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