Alexandra Ivanoff
Last updated: 26 February, 2013

Istanbul’s Tarlabasi – a symbol of urban renewal

Alexandra Ivanoff tells a personal story of how she discovered true community in some 30 rag-tag, crazy quilt blocks that have now been demolished to become the habitat of sophisticated young urban dwellers.

Translated from the Turkish, “Tarlabasi” means “front field”. Directly opposite the bustling Taksim Square in the Beyoglu municipality of downtown Istanbul, Tarlabasi, after its former life as a field, became a part of the 19th century urban domestic sprawl where many Greek and Armenian architects built homes and churches, shops and community centers.

During the population exchange of the mid 20th century, most of the Greeks and Armenians fled Istanbul, leaving vast sections of the city empty. Thousands of buildings were demolished to make room for a giant highway to connect Taksim Square to the port areas south of it.

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Over the ensuing decades, the vacated Tarlabasi became the magnet zone for free or very cheap housing for gypsies, Kurds, and poor immigrants from everywhere. Up until the recent demolition of block after block of buildings adjacent to the Tarlabasi Boulevard that winds up and down the long grade on the western side of Beyoglu, this area was a seedy slum that had a reputation as a dangerous den for drug-dealers.

When I moved to Istanbul in 2007, I, like one of those immigrants, found a cheap apartment in Tarlabasi. I was surrounded by people who had come from the Black Sea regions of Turkey, Kurds, Africans, gypsies, and transvestites who do a lively prostitution business in the warren of dark alleys beyond the big boulevard.

On my street in the center of the area, there was a “travesti” house, a former church rectory. They would emerge soon after sundown, assembling in front of their building. They resembled a Wedekind or Brecht stage setting, the street lamps lighting their wigs, makeup, and fishnet stockings with decadent drama, especially when the most beautiful among them opened their mouths to reveal a baritone voice.

Although this street was not pretty, is was not, however, dangerous. During my 18 months of living there, my neighbors delighted in chatting with me as the only American on the block. I would say hello to the smiling gypsy mothers, their babes in arms on the outer stairs of their houses, every night. Local men always jumped up to help me with a furniture moving project, finding a light bulb, fixing a broken table – and when I needed it, proudly protect me from lurking strangers late at night.

When I had five old windows replaced in my apartment, the neighboring families prepared a tea and munchies platter for the workmen, me, and my landlord, who participated by cleaning a dirty old light fixture on the ceiling. This was real community in action.

The street scene outside my window was a passing parade of international characters: from old men in shalvar and fezes, Africans in tribal kaftans, young Kurdish studs in black leather, to a myriad of children who were fascinated with my lipstick colors. Once a week, I saw a flock of sheep, led by a young boy shepherd, walking through.

In the name of urban renewal, this rag-tag, crazy-quilt community has been upended: every family and business in the enormous construction zone was evicted. Demolition of more than 30 large blocks of old buildings started in early 2012. Miles of billboards shielding the construction zones sport advertisements of the new look for the neighborhood: It’s a scene where sophisticated young urban dwellers, briefcase in hand or pushing baby strollers are all, without exception, blue-eyed blonds. This “yenileme’ or renewal, is a fantasy vision of who is, purportedly, able to purchase one of these new homes there.

A few meters away is the Taksim Project, another renewal of the area around Taksim Square. Since the early 1900s, this area has undergone periodic transformation, and each edition left it with fewer and fewer trees. We face an asphalt future here. At this writing, most of the major roadways are gutted and an underground parking garage is being built, and clusters of new shopping centers will appear. Istanbul now has over 100 luxury shopping malls to support the 21st century global sport of spending money on global brands. Gone are family businesses that cannot meet high rents set by the new global landlords. It’s the Manhattanization of Istanbul.

Though I moved out of Tarlabasi in 2009 to another district of Istanbul, I cannot ever forget the kind of community cohesion and person-to-person style of living, especially as a foreigner in a place where my command of Turkish was minimal. What will survive the urban renewal in Tarlabasi, however, is the giant market, the “pazar,” every Sunday until sundown. It stretches from Kurdele Street and Serdar Ömer Pasa Street, between Dolapdere Caddesi and Kalyoncu Kullugu. There is an enormous selection of fresh vegetables and fruits, cheese, eggs, olives, tea sold by the kilo, housewares, clothing, cleaning products, and live baby chicks.

It was and still is home to the Adam Mickiewicz Museum. The renovated yellow three-story building on Tatli Badem (Sweet Almond) Street bears a wall plaque that tells of one of the most famous Polish poets, a progenitor of Romanticism, a professor of languages in Paris, an artist and musician, and celebrated patriot, Adam Mickiewicz. He was sent to Turkey to solve internal military conflicts with the Polish Legion Army in what was to become his last year. In an earlier construction of this building he died in November 1855 and his tomb lies in the basement. The original wooden house burned down in 1870 and was rebuilt by another Polish immigrant. It was used from then on as a meetingplace for Poles who had helped Turks survive in the bloody Crimean War against Russia. So when you’re picking out a head of lettuce or buying a kilo of sweet almonds at the nearby Sunday pazar, look up at the yellow house and think of this forgotten hero, whose literary legacy was lauded by Victor Hugo, whose patriotism was praised by Napoleon, whose poignant funeral was in Paris – but who died in Tarlabasi.

An excellent blog on Tarlabasi’s current situation is

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