I always wonder about the dark side of Istanbul – the slums, the gece kondu (“put up in a night”) favellas that form the back-drop of the city on countless Turkish cinema classics from the 70s. Such pockets still exist, places like Gazi Osman Pasa, a poor migrant area occupied and effectively put under martial law in the 90s. Other well-known slums include my place of employment – Bagcilar, otherwise known as Istanbul's 'Wild West.' Bagcilar is the most populated local borough in Turkey, housing around a million people in a maze of concrete apartments.
Gazi Osman Pasa is now just one of many internal immigrant suburbs around Istanbul. As for Bagcilar, recent tramway connections, and a new metro station plan have provided a life-line to the city's finance and employment centres, drastically improving its prosperity and security.
All the while, a stone's throw from the heart of the city lies Tarlabaşı.
Driving from Galata bridge to Taksim Square, one is lead along Tarlabaşı Caddessi. The road climbs uphill steeply surrounded on all sides by the shimmering nightlights of the entire city. The breath-taking view provides some comfort when one is held up in the inevitable traffic leading up to the square. The street snakes round and gently straightens out until it goes exactly parallel to Istiklal Caddessi, the glimmering shopping and party capital of the city. The right side of the road is full of hurried taxi stops, shoppers, families and groups of students and tourists filtering out of the side streets of that spectacular, mile-long high
No-one looks left. After all, who would? There are no lights, shops or obvious cafes, and the silhouette of the areas typical turn-of-the-century houses reassures any passers by that this is simply where party ends and the residential city begins. I went to have a closer look. The following observations take place within spitting distance of Istiklal Caddessi's shopping vitrines.
I got out of the taxi at the square and crossed to the other side as it were. Closer to the square, the street mirrors the Taksim area; banks, shops, kebab places and the like. One crowded bus stop marks the end of this. One empty, boarded-up house with a crumbling roof welcomes you to the Tarlabaşı zone.
After a two minute walk down the busy main street my attention was taken by the row upon row of huge, empty housing, blackened by fire and the intensified by the absence of street lights. The glistening lights on the other side gave me comfort in the form of my own shadow beeming onto the wrecks. While my sites were locked onto the architecture around me I suddenly felt a hand on my lower back. I turned to see the jet black hair, leather jacket and crooked grin of a transexual hooker. I grabbed by bag and uttered a “no thanks” only to find myself in the middle of a horde of others waiting outside a bar whose dim lights shone through a discreet blind in its small windows. I swung out to the curb to continue my journey. The woman had simply enter one of the empty houses with its face completely demolished, to ask for tea from an old moustachioed gentlemen who had rather strategically set up a tea stand for the workers, it being a chilly evening to wear a latex mini-skirt.
I realised I should look where I'm going as I then left the mainroad and headed into the interior of the slum, walled in on all sides by the haunting shells of the 19th century bourgeoisie housing. I followed the sliver of lighted streets, peering into the darkness of the adjacent alleys only long enough to make out children playing in the rubble. The lights ran out and I continued, walking towards a golden light and what looked like a colourful crowd a few blocks ahead. Would I re-emerge in an average working class neighbourhood? On the dark street young men stood outside their repair shops, locking the doors with elaborate chains and smoking at the end of a long shift. I continued towards the light, the people, and the noise. No sooner had the noise reached the height of shouting and chanting than it was accompanied by the unmistakable smell of the spice markets of the south east region.
I had gone from sensing my way through a darkness, to an explosion of colour and light. The market air was laced with dust and the scent of freshly watered vegetables. The crowd was like no other I had seen in Istanbul's many local weekly market places. I identified several accents, languages and forms of dress; ‘Khalo!’, ‘Khaltiye!’,‘Rojbash!’ the sellers cried. Many of the customers and street sellers were gypsy Roma, Kurds and Arabs – forming and age group that betrayed the fact these were no mere descendents of earlier internal emigrants.
After a few minutes bewildered by the sudden burst of activity, I pushed by way through the crowd. Aside from the mix languages and dress, the thing that made this bazaar different to rest was that behind the tent material hung around each stall, the pitch darkness of the ruined suburb made its presence known. I had taken a brief shortcut through part of this area last summer in the day time, I assumed that the apartments had been recently vacated and gutted to make way for some new improved shopping district or housing estate. After all, the rest of Istanbul had been undergoing a heavy make-over since the elections, and hadn't they recently thrown the gypsies out of France Street on the other side of Taksim to make way for trendy bohemian bars?
Something overpowered me about the buildings though. A feeling I had sensed frequently during my stay in Izmir, staring at its vacant, rotting mansions and clinical seafront that was the site of a gruesome massacre with no memorial. The sense of abandonment lingered too strongly and intentionally to owe to poor council planning. Tarlabaşı was no project I thought, the buildings were being left to rot, the marks of the fire were too extensive to have been a freak accident.
I stopped to survey by a small police station attached to the area back on the main road. A police tank was parked outside, surrounded by make-shift fencing. I approached a man in his fifties smoking a cigarette outside whether there was recently a fire in the area.
He pointed his thumb behind him, rolling back his eyes. “Oh way back”.
It all started to make sense. The decrepit slum I was touring was an unmarked mausoleum of the Greek community, whose churches and cathedrals mark tourist sites on Istiklal Caddesi, two hundred metres away. In the 1950s this was the site of an atrocious climax of racism that had built up in Turkey during the single-party era after the war. Istanbul's economy was still, to a large degree, run by its Christian population despite mass Turkish Muslim migration to the city. As a means to finish the job started in the war, a false rumour was spread that Greeks had vandalised Ataturk's former home in Thessaloniki and pogram was organised with all the killing, looting and raping that entails. What followed was the flight of the Greeks from Istanbul, the final nail in the coffin for Eastern Rome.
I wondered further down an alley into the silent darkness. Tiny faces peered through the window frames. There were children everywhere, some throwing glass bottles against a wall. Down another alley way young men were sitting around a fire. I continued, walking in the middle of the road – a boy of about twelve threw a large rock on the ground to my side. His friends stared at the rock and back up to the boy, stood nonchalant and all drifted back into the darkness as I continued.
Suddenly, up ahead three lights shining directly into my eyes came thundering towards me. Police on motorbikes, or 'dolphins' were hurtling through the street. I slipped onto the pavement to give way but they stretched to a halt right behind me. I turned to see what looked like the one on the left screaming through an empty window. Then one of the children standing on the corner looked up at me; “they're calling you” he said.
I stopped and turned again. Two officers dismounted and started walking towards me. One took his helmet off and stood to my left while the other kept his on, masking his face so that only his furious eyes could be seen. The guy on the left asked 'why didn't you stop when we called you?' Before I could answer the masked police jutted in helpfully with 'Idiot! Why is it you didn't stop?'
Having had a number of encounters with Turkish police I was used to this tone, but I still had to take a moment. I stopped to look into his eyes disapprovingly. Turning to the evening's 'good cop' of the role play I explained I didn't know they were calling me, “Well now you know” was the simple reply.
I spent about a half a minute riffling through my pockets to find my residence permit, while the young boy updated another newly-arrived bunch of street kids on the situation so far.
“Dickhead, do you have your passport or not?” “Here” I said handing bad cop the small booklet.
After analysing every page he snapped it shut he looked at me and gave a nod that said 'that's as much fun as I'm able to have.' Thank God it's not like Izmir, I thought. Over there, I was driven around in a cop car and teased incessently by civil police just for kicks. I guess Tarlabaşı can provide enough entertainment for them without my help. I walked ahead for five minutes, back to the hussle and bussle of Taksim Square.
Facts on Tarlabaşı
There was actually a planned regeneration in 2006 following a petition from the council calling into use the newly legislated 'Protection of Deteriorated Historic and Cultural Heritage through Renewal and Re-use' bill.
The last news update on the project website, www.tarlabası yenileniyor.com is dated as January 2010. The note quotes Beyoglu councillor Ahmet Misbah Demircan as stating his intention to make Tarlabaşı for Istanbul what the Champs Elysee is for Paris.
Amnesty International stepped in to stop people getting evicted from the area last year.
This video report by NPR sheds some light on the difficulties facing the inhabitants of the suburb.