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Saving Istanbul's skid row

The battle lines are drawn over the city's planned "improvements" to a notorious neighborhood.

Clouds gather over the Ottoman era Mecidiye mosque and the Bosphorus bridge as Turkish men get ready to jump in to the Bosphorus strait to refresh themselves in Istanbul July 22, 2009. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — This storied city has its fair share of notorious neighborhoods, but none can compare with Tarlabasi, known as a hotbed for vice, crime and prostitution.

Until the 1950s, the neighborhood housed mostly the city’s lower middle-class Non-Muslim populations, dominantly Greeks and Armenians. Now it is home to mainly Kurds, Roma, transsexuals and illegal immigrants from African countries and the Middle East.

Despite Tarlabasi’s diversity and rich architectural history — evocative of Greece at the turn of the 20th century — none of Istanbul’s municipal governments appears moved to preserve it.

The decision in 1988 to build a six-lane highway through the middle of the city, cutting off Tarlabasi from its more elegant neighbor, Beyoglu, didn't help. The poorer neighborhood had long been denied urban services, and it shows: Street lighting is either bad or absent, the infrastructure for electricity and water supply age-worn, and buildings are precariously held together by DIY-renovations.

Worse for the put-upon residents of Tarlabasi, the Municipality of Beyoglu plans — in accordance with Istanbul’s newest Urban Renewal Plan — to tear down houses to make way for a “modern gated community” complete with offices, a high-end shopping mall and luxury apartments. 

The first stage of the project Tarlabasi Yenileniyor (Renewing Tarlabasi), comprising 5 acres and 278 buildings, was supposed to be completed before 2010 — the same year that Istanbul becomes one of the European Capitals of Culture. However, construction has yet to begin. In order for the project to move forward, the municipality must team up with contractor GAP Insaat — part of the Çalik Group (the CEO of which is Prime Minister Erdogan’s son-in-law) — to evict the neighborhood’s residents, most of whom are legal home owners and renters.

Those residents have formed the Association for the Development and Solidarity for the Owners and Tenants of Tarlabasi. Together with the Chamber of Architecture, it took the Beyoglu municipality to court a year ago but is still waiting for an outcome.

Erdal Aybek, who works for the association, remains adamant: "This project was planned without the knowledge and the consent of the Tarlabasi residents. But we will not let them evict us this easily."

Because real estate prices in Beyoglu are among the highest in Istanbul, the district municipality has decided to give that neighborhood a makeover.