Just a short walk from our bureau in Istanbul’s Karakoy neighbourhood, there used to be an excellent fish market on the Bosphorus shore. It was a bit rough and ready but there were simple stalls and fishermen-chefs who served the freshest mackerel with bright-red gills. Prices were low, it was a place as much for tourists as locals and diners had ringside seats for the drama of the Golden Horn.
Until, in the dead of night, the municipality bulldozed the lot. I headed down the day after to find a scene of carnage: plastic kiosks and crumbled counters, fishy-smelling rubble and a few upended trees. The explanation from Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality was that the fish market was an illegal construction. This is likely true. Yet everyone is also aware that it was on a prime piece of real estate.
Istanbul is no stranger to gentrification. But the Karakoy fish market presents a broader question: how should informal businesses and activity be treated by city hall? Of course, regulation is often about ensuring order, standards of hygiene and quality in a city’s markets and restaurants. But Istanbul is a growing city of 17 million people. The informal sector is a rare moment when the populace makes clear demands from its urban environment.
To illustrate my point, another rapidly changing city and another fish market. For some years I lived in Dubai during its boom-then-bust ricochet of the late 2000s. There is a cavernous fish market on Dubai Creek and every weekend, in the last hour before sunset, groups of porters from the market would converge in its car park for a spot of traditional wrestling in the Kushti style of the Subcontinent.
With a circle of Toyota trucks as a makeshift ring, hard-working men stripped to their pants to brawl it out in the afternoon heat. Spectators gathered, a bit of pin money changed hands and there was the call to prayer to signal when the bout was over. All good, kind-of-clean fun.
The guidebooks soon got wind of it and then there were tourists bumbling around the scrubby car park in search of the big fight. Entrepreneurial types started peddling bottles of water. The hotel bars in this business district suddenly got a few more thirsty visitors through the door.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the wrestling got banned by the municipality. It was all too informal, too chaotic, to continue and the little economy around it, however small, disappeared.
The point of all this is that informal activity – provided it is common-sense legal – is a message to the city about a need or an opportunity. In the case of Istanbul, there is demand for a fish market even as its inner city gentrifies. Every mayor should be able to appreciate a cue like that.
And if you’re wondering about those wrestlers back in Dubai, I’ve heard the fights are back on, albeit they’re a little harder to find. Fortunately, where there’s a will there’s always a way.
Christopher Lord is Monocle’s Istanbul bureau chief.