In the fall of 1994, flying into Istanbul for a visit, I goggled in amazement out the window of the taxi taking me to the city from Ataturk International Airport. In the three years since my previous trip, the half-hour ride along the shores of the Sea of Marmara had been transformed. What had been an open jumble of grassy hills and tumble-down beachfront was now a solid mass of urban high-rises and half-finished structures, dotted with new mosques and swarming with residents. The effects of immigration and economic growth were so dramatic as to be almost hallucinatory. Meeting a friend for a drink, I found myself at a hotel in a neighborhood that I could have sworn hadn't existed when I lived in Istanbul in the 1980s.
Now, tragically, those neighborhoods have been transformed again, decimated by the effects of the devastating earthquake that struck 50 miles away in Izmit. Though most of 2,700-year-old Istanbul weathered the quake safely -- even the soaring suspension bridges that link Europe and Asia held up -- the new neighborhoods that swelled with hasty construction in the go-go early 1990s saw vast damage. Areas such as Avcilar along the Sea of Marmara, a strange hybrid of slum and boom town that many Turks had seen as a sign of economic growth, are now chaotic witnesses to the way that growth had outstripped safety, caution or planning.
"Things were getting better; things were picking up. We were hopeful about Turkey," says a despondent-sounding Guler Koknar, who is a point person on relief efforts for the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. "That region was doing fine -- these are not underdeveloped cities. Development caught them too fast, maybe."
Too-fast, unmanaged growth sounds like a familiar problem, the kind with which many a harried American suburbanite (and the occasional presidential candidate) can identify. But to appreciate what unplanned growth really looks like, you had to be someplace like Istanbul or Izmit in the 1990s -- places where trade liberalization, uncheckable migration from the countryside, new markets in licit and illicit goods from Turkic Central Asia, a traditional lack of municipal governance and a generous dose of local election politics snowballed together with matchless energy. The Turkish name for the slums that ring the city -- gecekondus -- means "put up overnight," a nod to the widespread practice of letting squatters stay in place if they can get a rudimentary roof over their heads in the first 24 hours after arrival.
But the gecekondus were hardly the only part of the region that strained the framework of services -- the infrastructure that has now collapsed so dramatically, leading not just to the awful scenes of destruction but to the widely noted inadequacy of crisis communications and government rescue work. Living in Istanbul, even before the boom, I'd noticed that people rarely made an appointment to meet me at a specific time. They'd say things like, "Let's meet at Ziya bar between three and five" or "I'll be in my office from 10 on -- phone when you get nearby." The reason wasn't some Middle Eastern vagueness of scheduling; it was traffic. It was humanly impossible to gauge within two hours how long it would take you to get from one part of Istanbul to another.
Anger this past week has grown at the contractors who slapped up flimsy houses as the ballooning growth hit Istanbul, Izmit, Golcuk and other places now ghastly in their suffering. Some contractors have been chased by crowds and had their cars burned. But politics too played a part. As gecekondu neighborhoods burgeon, built cheaply and clumsily on unclaimed land, there's tremendous pressure on local officials to legalize the buildings rather than tear them down and move the residents to public housing.
"Mayors have lost elections when they chose to evacuate people," Koknar says. "It's the mentality. These people come, they settle, they build a life. They put up a one-story building and think they'll be amnestied in 10 years, turn it into a five-story building and get rich."
It's a mentality that played too easily into the hands of builders who cut corners and broke building codes, probably sharing the assumption that the increasingly precarious structures in this long, long-settled place would muddle and totter through as they always had. It took this week's hellish carnage to tear off the veil and show they were building over an abyss.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.