This is Views from the Metropolis, a monthly column by Paul Osterlund on Turkey's urban transformation due to development, conflict, and migration.
Istanbul is a gigantic city of 15 million where civilizations have settled for thousands of years. It has expanded at warp speed over the past several decades but still remains anchored around its position between the Black and Marmara Seas, separated by the captivating Bosphorus Strait.
In 2018, the beautiful and the unsightly overlap as exquisite historic buildings are home to chain retail and newly-built high-rise buildings deprive many of the sea views they enjoyed for years. Those with their eyes open, however, can’t help but notice the countless gems that trace a jagged map through the city’s devalorized past, from a 19th century Greek Orthodox church to the remaining sections of the 5th-century Byzantine land walls, pummelled by conflict and time but proudly wearing their scars.
It is a city where ghosts young and old lurk around every corner. This is to be expected in a place where widespread destruction and forced dispossession have been defining characteristics for decades, even centuries. These countless phantoms are spiritual manifestations of the loss, betrayal, and wreckage the city bears as its burdens.
I’ve been coming to this city for over a decade and have lived here for seven of those years. At some point, I realized that the jolly themes of gentrification, destruction, dying traditions, and the demise of beloved institutions were too omnipresent to ignore and eventually managed to base a career in journalism around writing about them. New spectres appeared on the regular, often saddled alongside their counterparts that had been lingering for decades.
I couldn’t detect their presence on my first visit in 2007. I was nineteen, out of the US for the first time and preoccupied with pounding as much Efes draft beer as possible while in this seductive, energetic city. I had also become intoxicated by the stunning view of the Bosphorus that suddenly makes a triumphant appearance while walking down a hill in the south campus of Boğaziçi University, where I was on my way to a lecture. It was precisely that moment, standing face-to-face with a view that’s still captivating over a decade later, that I realized I could live here.
The Aya Triada church in Taksim Square. Photos provided by the author.
A year and a half later, I returned for a year abroad at the same university, originally founded as a higher American institution, Robert College, during the late Ottoman era. I was a bit older and more mature, open and receptive to the city’s trauma. I remember how the majestic Greek Orthodox church near Taksim Square felt prominent and lonely at the same time. The complex is now caged in by a ring of fast food restaurants, serving döner and “wet” burgers—a garlic-laden Turkish rendition of sliders, still flanked by the Greek high school that is now much too big for the few remaining students. There were over 200,000 Greeks living in Istanbul a decade prior to the establishment of the republic; today there are fewer than 2,000, the brutal and tragic consequence of a century of dispossession.
In many Istanbul neighborhoods, one would be hard-pressed to not stumble into a Greek Orthodox church, and there are far more houses of worship in the city than the diminished community could ever use. Panayia Evangelistria, arguably Istanbul’s most beautiful church of its kind, is in Dolapdere, an impoverished neighborhood undergoing the heavy blow of gentrification. The church is surrounded by a cluster of shabby auto repair shops and mannequin retailers. Every Saturday night, a popular street flea market is established in the narrow, crumbling alleys around it. Come Sunday morning, maybe a handful of worshippers show up, if the church is open for services that week. It’s the only Greek remnant left in the neighborhood, apart from the city’s sole pork butcher a few doors down. A chat with the salty Kozmaoğlu brothers will involve a rant about inevitable swan song of the country’s all-but-gone haram meat industry, where the number of farms raising pigs can be counted on two fingers. If the brothers pack it in, they will be the last of their kind on multiple levels.
The Panayia Evangelistria church in Dolapdere.
Over the course of two horrific days in 1955, Greek homes, businesses, and churches in the area and throughout the city were ransacked by a rabid mob. Less than a decade later in 1964 more than 10,000 Istanbul Greeks who held Greek citizenship were expelled from the city as conflicts between Turks and Greeks on the island of Cyprus boiled over. Forced to leave with just pocket money and a few personal items, they were extracted from the homes and neighborhoods they themselves built. The ghosts that materialized out of this process of disenfranchisement still haunt the heart of a city that still harbors so many traces of one of its historical communities that has all but vanished.
It was in 2009 when I first ventured into Tarlabaşı, a rough neighborhood just above Dolapdere that everyone told me not to visit. This too was once a Greek area, and it has its own impressive church. After the Greeks left, a period of disintegration culminated in Tarlabaşı becoming a refuge of sorts for the downtrodden, Kurdish migrants from the southeast, Roma, illegal African immigrants, sex workers, trash collectors, refugees, and junkies.
Flanking the main part of the Beyoğlu district, which up until recently was the center of nightlife, the buffer zone between the bars and Tarlabaşı is a six-lane boulevard that prevents lost (or drunk) tourists from staggering into another dimension. I remember marveling at the contiguous row of buildings and the variety of their conditions and architectural styles. On the ground floors of many were wig shops that catered to actors, accident victims, and trans prostitutes. Much of that stretch has since been interrupted by a sweeping initiative that aims to give the tarnished quarter a squeaky clean makeover, complete with office buildings and coffee shops. After six years and a slew of setbacks, the project has still not been completed and is the poster child for gentrification gone wrong.
A backstreet in the neighborhood of Tarlabaşı
On the other hand, signs of vitality emerge at every corner. While filming a music video during a snowstorm, our crew initially focused around the construction zone, aiming to capture the dismal sights of a neighborhood in flux. Venturing deeper into Tarlabaşı, we ended up capturing gleeful shots of kids sledding down hills in makeshift vessels once used as baking pans for savory pastries. Some teenagers asked if we were from a major TV channel before pelting us with snowballs.
A favorite eatery of mine serving superbly-crafted and regionally-specific pide is located in Tarlabaşı, run by a gentleman and dough-kneading master whose surname appropriately translates to “five fingers.” He’s been a fixture in the area for more than two decades, luring customers from all over the city who may even leave the neighborhood realizing that it’s not the hellhole they were warned about.
If Greeks were Istanbul’s primary victims of systematic displacement and dispossession in the twentieth century, that role definitely belongs to the Roma people in this one. Sulukule, a rag-tag neighborhood dating back to Byzantine times, was leveled (in spite of major opposition from within and outside) in 2009, its humble cottages replaced by grotesque “Neo-Ottoman” apartments now mostly inhabited by Syrian refugees who are being charged too much for their rent.
Much of Hacıhüsrev, another Roma quarter with a legendary (though inflated) reputation for crime, has been demolished to make way for a project that even got its own museum exhibition, in what can only be described as innovative advertising . Years ago, while passing by a large tract of the neighborhood, a ramshackle amalgam of haphazardly built dwellings perched on a hill looking over the highway, our taxi driver remarked “And this is where you go to buy drugs,” with a snide grin indicating he knew from personal experience. The drug game didn’t define the area but those cheering on its demolition sure want us to think it does.
Gentrification and excessive development are major realities in major global cities, but in Istanbul, they’re on steroids. Only billionaires with helicopters can escape the horrendous traffic, yet no one is immune to the never-ending rattle of construction. Entire neighborhoods are rapidly “cleaned up” and fortified with gated communities, with no concern as to how the aggregate effect of these projects will have on society over time. The new ghosts that make the rounds in these unrecognizable areas are phoenixes emerging from the ashes of spaces burned off the map.
Forming a connection with a city you didn’t grow up in involves becoming in tune with its problems and drawbacks and not blaming it for your own. Lifelong residents are often less forgiving, and that is understandable. Many feel crushed by the city, but the city itself is being crushed by contractors and politicians that seem to despise green space, fresh air and the more pleasant trappings of history. Living in this beautiful, troubled metropolis means being continuously confronted with destruction and loss, and the ghosts stick around to make sure we don’t become completely desensitized to that reality.