In Search of Istanbul's Ghost Malls

The city’s malls, once so hip, are disappearing—but they're where many modern Turks forged their identity.
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The Astoria Shopping Center, Istanbul. (Photo: D-N-D/Shutterstock)

On September 22, a few minutes after 5 p.m., the man who built Europe's second-biggest shopping mall at the center of Istanbul died of a heart attack in a hotel that he owned. The top brass of Turkey's government, as well as leading figures from the business world, attended Ibrahim Cevahir's funeral three days later. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was there, as were Istanbul's mayor, the leader of the opposition party, the coach of Beşiktaş football team, and the president of Macedonia.

Cevahir had long served as the chairman of the board of directors and president of Cevahir Holding, a company whose chief focus is managing shopping centers. At his funeral, a former Turkish statesman described him as "the Atom Ant of Turkey's business world."

News of Cevahir's death came a month after it was announced that Turkey's first shopping mall, Galleria, would be destroyed in 2016. The aim is to clear the field for a new complex of hotels, residences, and office buildings; projected completion in five years, with a budget of $1.5 billion. Since I spent an awful lot of my childhood in Istanbul's shopping malls, the death of Turkey's biggest mall mogul and the prospective destruction of its first mall put me in a melancholy mood. It felt as if an era in my own life was coming to an end.

"Turkey’s mall construction euphoria fading," a Turkish newspaper reported ominously last year. Contractors had been delaying their mall projects; instead of the expected number of 64, only the construction of 16 new malls commenced in 2014. With their sustainable growth slowing down, things didn't look good at all for the future of Turkey's malls.

Here, in between the protective walls of a shopping mall, Turkey's citizens could re-invent themselves.

How things change. The shopping mall boom started in Turkey in 2006. From that year until 2013 an average of 30 new malls were built every year. Today there are 341 in the country, 93 of them in Istanbul. Malls came to the city almost as speedily as new American movies did; we used to try guessing their names, which became less creative every year (White Center, Carousel, Canyon, Sapphire, finally the inescapable Trump). The speed of change slowed in 2013, when only 16 malls were added to Turkey's mall kingdom.

What was the problem?

The annus horribilis in the history of Turkey's shopping malls was 2013. With interest in city conservation growing, a popular opposition against gentrification projects rising, and a newborn curiosity for the country's Ottoman-era buildings being threatened by construction companies, talking positively about shopping malls came to be considered sacrilegious from 2013 on. In May of that year, the biggest uprising Turkey had ever witnessed took place against a shopping mall planned to be built in Istanbul's Gezi Park. "Will a Shopping Mall Be Turkey's Tahrir Square?" a Bloomberg piece wondered on May 31. When Turkey's then president Abdullah Gül tweeted his pleasure at not seeing "a single skyscraper or a shopping mall" in Rome during a state visit, Turkish Twitter lit up with approval.

I kind of like shopping malls. I can't help it; I grew up in them. My interest in malls is long-standing: as a freelancer with no office space to work in and a weak spot for being around people from different walks of life while working, I see my mall-based coffices as places of refuge.

Three years ago, in the course of a month in Istanbul's Astoria Shopping Mall, as I wrote and edited a long essay about Bram Stoker, the mall provided me with everything I needed: space, silence, and large quantities of coffee. Astoria is among Istanbul's least-crowded malls, a minute’s walk from the Gayrettepe subway station. The building's top floors belong to the Kempinski Residences. Astoria has a swimming pool, a 49-meter double-atrium, a bookstore, and two coffeeshop chains.

As I was writing my Stoker piece there, a manual laborer walked toward the adjacent shop, placed a sign on one of its walls, and started hitting the other wall with a huge hammer. "Under construction" the sign on the first wall read. A large laborer team arrived and started destroying other shops. Scribbling in Astoria as it was being hammered to dust by workers is among my most valued memories. Shortly afterwards, the building was closed to the public to be renovated and re-furnished. Here, malls are places of constant change—and they somehow manage to get your money even while being torn to pieces.

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In Ottoman times, Istanbul's most famous shopping mall was the Grand Bazaar, seen by modern academics as the nucleus of Turkey's modern shopping mall culture. This centuries-old covered market spreads to more than 60 streets and attracts up to 400,000 visitors every day. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the sign of distinction for Istanbul elites became shopping from Western department stores. In Istanbul, entrepreneurs opened a number of those, including Bon Marche and Louvre, to satisfy growing demand. Such modernist shopping havens were places where the Westernizing dreams of the young republic could come true, however costly. By 1980s, with a distaste for centralized modernism on the rise, the shopping mall became the ideal space for a Turkish style of postmodernism. Here, people would be allowed to smoke a hookah in one shop, drink a Frappucino in another, and buy the new Apple Watch beneath a dome featuring Ottoman motifs.

"The development of the shopping mall turns out to be timely for the Turkish urban citizen searching for modernity through new identity components in consumption patterns," Feyzan Erkip, a Turkish professor specializing on consumption and leisure spaces, wrote in 2002, in an article discussing the shopping mall as an emergent public space in Turkey:

Some benefit from this development more than others, for example, working women, indicating the process of feminization of the flaneur. However, these sites simultaneously produce a new arena of negotiation and conflict as well, creating new forms of exclusion, particularly for the urban poor.

According to Erkip, Ottoman public life had left little space for women, having long been dominated by the male population. This changed in the republican era, which saw more participation of women in the public sphere. But not all women were welcomed to the public sphere, where public expressions of conservatism (wearing traditional garments and the like) met with opprobrium, locking a large part of the female population inside their houses. According to Erkip, the public-space-transforming role played by republican women is played by conservative women today, partly thanks to the emergence of shopping malls: "Women were given an active role in the transformation of the society in adopting Western values during the Republican period, and this role was supported by the increasing public appearances of Turkish women. Now, a similar role has been undertaken by Islamist women," she writes. "Shopping, previously dominated by the male as the decision maker, emerged as an appropriate activity for modern urban Turkish women."

The first mall, Galleria, was opened to the public on October 1, 1988. The idea of the mall had come from the liberal primer Turgut Özal, who was very impressed by the Houston Galleria mall in Houston, Texas, and wanted to see something similar in Istanbul. From a Printemps store to a bowling alley, from an ice skating rink to Turkish children's beloved entertainment center the Fame City, Galleria turned into a symbol of the country's changing culture.

Here, in between the protective walls of a shopping mall, Turkey's citizens could re-invent themselves. While public spaces, universities, and governmental buildings had closed their doors to headscarf-wearing women, men with long hair, LGBTI people and rural-looking “Black Turks” coming from poor neighborhoods, malls like Galleria welcomed them in their role as the new citadels of Turkish capitalism. "What makes this process distinctive in Turkey is that people tend to invent modern lifestyle choices to replace the single uniform definition of modernity imposed by the Republican elite," Erkip writes.

Apart from giving them a commercial way of expressing their identities, malls served Turkish people's fantasies. Viaport Venezia mall, which opened this summer in Istanbul's Gaziosmanpaşa district, is a case in point. The Venezia mall, according to its brochure, "opens the doors of Venetian life to Istanbul's people.... It realizes the Venetian dream.... Here you will be able to cruise through Venice's famous canals in gondolas, shop in Venetian squares, dine with friends in Venetian restaurants.... You will be able to sip your coffee by the Piazza San Marco." For those stuck in Istanbul's notorious traffic at rush hour, that is an attractive proposition indeed.

The defining role served by Turkey's malls is economic in nature. The shopping mall sector provided around 400,000 jobs in 2013. Malls attracted more than 1.6 billion visitors, leading to sales at around 34 billion dollars.

"Financialized capitalism has been re-drawing the global cityscape since the early 2000s through a mixture of re-generation projects, and residential and commercial real estate developments that have almost replaced stock markets as destination for speculative money," says Ismail Erturk, a senior lecturer and finance specialist at the University of Manchester. "Istanbul has enthusiastically become part of this trend and embraced it as neo-modernism. Shopping malls are the most conspicuous emblems of this unenlightened modernism built on a conjunctural combination of domestic credit and regional laundered money rather than sustainable wealth."

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Most of Turkey's shopping malls are interconnected through the metropolitan subway system. Once you enter this double system of malls and metro stations, the rest comes quite easily.

One day not so long ago, after completing a coffice day at Istanbul's Trump Towers, I found myself in a huge tunnel where, with thousands of others commuters, I rushed to the Şişli metro station nearby. Şişli metro station has direct access to Cevahir Mall (they are literally connected), so it is possible to spend an hour enjoying the view of Istanbul from the Trump Towers' 155-meter height before arriving at the adjacent mall (Cevahir) and purchasing the newest lingerie in its large Victoria's Secret shop.

Unlike the more recently built ones like Cevahir, some Istanbul malls are dead or struggling. Akmerkez (the White Center), at the posh Etiler neighborhood, was all people could talk about in mid-1990s—I remember going there inside a cab with 150 bucks in my pocket with which I planned to buy Windows 95. Akmerkez lost its luster in the 2000s, when the swiftly expanding metro line turned out to offer no nearby station to the mall. Galleria suffers from a similar problem: Those old buildings were not designed for the metro-connected Istanbul of today.

Visiting those dying malls last month, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to Istanbul malls if locals lost their interest in them. What would become of all the rentable space they contain, which amounts to 9.2 million square meters? Istanbul residents should get ready to enter the era of ghost malls in their city, according to Erturk.

"Since the summer of 2013 the wind in global finance blows in other directions and like in other emerging economies there is hardly any breeze to fill the sails of shopping mall economics in Istanbul," Erturk says. "Financialized capitalism feeds on asset bubbles that regularly burst. Now it is Istanbul’s turn to experience a burst of some sorts in shopping mall bubble.... But Istanbul is an experienced and resourceful bitch; she knows how to dance with the ghosts. So she will not be afraid of ghost shopping malls, no matter how painful they are economically and socially."

In other words, Istanbul's locals will be living alongside those millions of square meters of large malls, whether or not we find them cool anymore. Now we need to find a way of living alongside the ghosts of our childhood, and that of Turkish capitalism.

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