Saving Istanbul's skid row

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.

The district mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan, an AKP politician with a background in tourism, has made the glamourously marketed "Tarlabasi Yenileniyor" project his priority. In the Turkish press he cites the residents’ satisfaction about the urban renewal plans. "We have talked to the people there and did not face any problems," Demircan said in the newspaper Radikal. "They want everything to be done as soon as possible. They are happy."

That's news to the residents of Tarlabasi.

Mine Erel, who worked as a dancer in nightclubs for years, has owned a small four-story house in Tarlabasi for 32 years. Now retired, she lives in one of the 215 square foot flats with her two dogs, and rents out the two other apartments in order to make a modest living.

"For the whole building, they offer me a small flat somewhere in the outskirts of the city. They say that I would never be able to afford a flat in a new Tarlabasi house anyway. How would I even make a living like this ?" she asks.

The small workshop in her basement has been vacant for over six months now. She cannot find a new tenant, because noone wants to rent a workspace inside the renovation area.

Hanife Türkan moved from the predominantly Kurdish district of Siirt to Tarlabasi 15 years ago, when her village was razed to the ground by the Turkish army during the civil war in the Turkish southeast. "We have already been evicted once from our homes ," she says. "Everywhere we go, the Turkish government chases us out."

The situation is even worse for those who rent  — meaning about 70 percent of all Tarlabasi residents, a high percentage compared to the Istanbul neighborhood average of 35 percent. The living quality is low, but the rent is affordable for those that cannot find lodgings elsewhere.

Mücella Yapici, who works as an advisor in the Istanbul Chamber of Architecture, said that current urban politics in Istanbul actively increased homelessness — a problem almost unknown in the city until recently.

"Before, people always found a roof, even if that roof was of very low quality. But now the municipality simply bulldozes whole neighborhoods in order to increase real estate profits," Yapici said. "They don’t offer any alternatives to the former residents, and as a result these people are literally forced out onto the street."

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