A Reflection on ‘Seen and Unseen: Ho Chi Minh City’s Sidewalk Life’

After reading Anette M. Kim’s suggestions on understanding sidewalk life and space anew, I immediately wanted to reflect upon the physical and social dimensions of my own city’s sidewalks; Istanbul

‘A city’s sidewalk system usually exceeds the city’s parks and large open spaces.’

One may think about the overspreading nature of the sidewalks after reading this sentence. Yet, I think about how these vast spaces of eating, socializing and trading are changing and becoming more insignificant day by day for us locals of Istanbul. While the act of vending is no way near HCMC in terms of variety and quantity, the usage purposes of sidewalks changed a lot in time; one can say it is still adapting to the needs of the modern-day Istanbul.


I believe use of sidewalks and vending in Istanbul can be separated into 4 different categories:

  • Food Hawkers with Permit
  • Illegal Food Hawkers
  • Dining/Drinks Place with ‘Expanded’ Seating Arrangement
  • Other Vending Activities of Trading, etc. (Very Scarcely Found)

Because it is prohibited by law to freely vendor on the sidewalks due to the similar rationale stated in the reading (sake of traffic congestion, public health, modern city, etc.), all food hawkers of Istanbul require a permit to make ends meet legally. While there are some without permits, these ‘visually distinct’ hastily put up and quick-to-disassemble food counters give a sense of unease and unreliability for many. There are even sayings in Turkish for people who crave such food. Dining and drinks places require such permits too, but the cost of this kind of expansion sometimes leads owners to be more ‘friendly’ with many local authorities.


A Simit Hawker with Permit of Taksim/Beyoğlu


But above all this, I must say the act of vending (or sidewalk occupation) has a different meaning for Istanbul in relation to the time of the day.

Daytime is obvious. Apart from some historical sites and special designated areas, it is hard to be a food hawker in Istanbul. This is one of the many changes in the city, as it didn’t use to be like this. One could have found more options in the past. Yet, probably the cost of permits and the ever-decreasing neighboring relations (due to many urban renewal projects) probably make this kind of livelihood a harsh one. In addition, police inspections are pretty efficient in Istanbul. Especially after many attacks of terrorism, social tensions around immigration and internal conflicts since mid 2010’s, the city is a lot more packed with police officers. One can say this increase in amount may also have negatively affected the illegal food hawkers even if they wanted to operate at daytime like in HCMC.

But nighttime is different. Istanbul is a very lively city with a glittering night life. Especially when it comes to late night foods, drinks and entertainment; some parts of Istanbul don’t go to sleep until sunrise. Places like Taksim, Ortaköy, Bebek and Karaköy are some of these places that host a sea of faces every night. It is exactly because of this liveliness that sidewalk occupation at night is a lot more common in Istanbul. Pursuit of food at these places at late hours has a different meaning than in the morning for many of its locals and visitors. One common standard is that both of these hawkers (legal/illegal) in these places work until very late. While illegal hawkers occupy parts of sidewalks in variational fashion with their cheap foods, hawkers with permits open up their counters in similar places to establish/gain recognition.


A Brasserie in Nişantaşı that expanded its seatings to the Sidewalk


The same time difference applies for dining and drinking places as well, maybe even more. The mornings you can walk past freely, but at nights some sidewalks are completely ‘impenetrable’ to walking. While these kinds of expansions have been part of this city all along, it has never been so popular as much as today. I partially like the sidewalks being occupied by people drinking, and eating, and laughing late at night; but at the same time, it bothers me that it has become a norm. ‘Put some chairs and small tables on the sidewalk after 10 pm so you can be relevant, cool, contemporary!’ is what I think restaurant/café/bar owners think before they get into this new vending experience.


A Restaurant/Bar with Sidewalk Seating


I think a lot of changed in the past years for Istanbul. The ever-continuing urban planning, demolition of many public venues for ‘more profitable’ projects and privatization of everything has decreased the locality and sincerity of the city in some ways. This affects how we eat and socialize in this city. I used to eat a lot of street food in many of the places I mentioned especially when I was in high school. A lot has changed since than I can’t even remember when was the last time I picked up a food from a food hawker. It isn’t that they are not there anymore, but I feel a lot more distant to these kinds of vending today. I have recently been in some café/bars with sidewalk seating available as well, yet now thinking about it, to only feel privileged and later on irritated by the monotonic types of people around. The kind of exclusionary zone mentioned in the reading is not present in Istanbul (at least for now), but I think these kinds of places become more and more of a representation of your wealth, and social status rather than being just for eats and laughs in modern day Istanbul.

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