Thursday, January 31, 2013

A look at Tarlabaşı

Tarlabaşı has been receiving a lot of attention in the media lately as it's the "shady" neighborhood where Sarai Sierra stayed in Istanbul. I've already posted on the case and since nothing significant has emerged, I don't want to dwell on it -- rather, seeing Tarlabaşı mentioned in all of these news stories has been a reminder that I had intended to post about the neighborhood many months ago but put it off because frankly, it's just so complicated.

Tarlabaşı is a historic, run-down neighborhood in a Istanbul prime location, just a stone's throw from Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of the Republic, and the famous and always crowded Istiklal shopping street. Historically, Tarlabaşı was home to a Greek community, but it now houses a lot of Istanbul's disenfranchised, like poor immigrants to the city and transsexuals. I've heard conversationally that a lot of Western foreigners live there, though I don't know anyone who does, but Turks seem to fear the place and don't understand why any European or American would want to live there if they don't have to. 

I've only been around and about the neighborhood once, one Sunday when I managed to convince Cagatay to go, but I used to pass by it on the bus every day. On that commute, there were three things that always stood out: the laundry strung between buildings, the ridiculous amount of wig shops, and the tank sitting in front of the police station. Yes, a real tank. Supposedly, it's for Taksim Square (the site of many demonstrations), but I think it says quite aptly how people feel about Tarlabaşı -- This place is baaad.

I can't say what Tarlabaşı used to be, but right now, it's caught in this no-win cycle. In 2006, the government decided to "renew" the area, which is the PC way of saying that they're going to destroy the buildings and push the poor people out so that friends and friends of friends can make a shit-ton of money. Notably on this project, the company awarded the tender to renew Tarlabaşı is a subsidiary of a company owned by the prime minister's son-in-law. This kind of thing has been happening a lot in Istanbul in the name of progress and modernity, but the actuality is pretty horrible -- as part of moving out of the neighborhoods, they promise these poor people apartments in new buildings on the edges of the city, and then later, these people find out about the expensive down-payments or rents that they cannot possibly afford, and they end up with no place to live. It's just a glorified land grab. (We saw a fantastic documentary in the theater last year called Ekumenopolis, about this and other societal and environmental issues facing Istanbul.)

I'm not exactly sure what's currently going on with the Tarlabaşı Yenileniyor (Tarlabaşı is Renewed) project, but it seems to be stalled from what I could see (although the street is currently blocked off due to another massive project involving Taksim Square, so it's hard to say -- things might also just being moving really, really slowly). And this is where the no-win part comes in -- a lot of the buildings have been half-destroyed, so Tarlabaşı has become this empty neighborhood full of the shells of buildings and piles of concrete waste. If there were crime issues before, I am sure this hasn't helped.

The plunder of this city makes me really angry -- the government seems to do whatever it wants to historic districts and archaeological sites, and they're lining their own pockets at the expense of their citizens. (I know this happens in a lot of places, including America, but it just seems over the top here -- and the religious hypocrisy is just the cherry on top.)

As I'd pass by the edge of the neighborhood on the bus via Tarlabaşı Street, the billboards advertising Tarlabaşı Yenileniyor always caught my attention. There's a real interest here in building these "modern," Westernized mixed-use spaces, and the ads generally remind me of those old futuristic ads of flying cars and robot maids. The ads for Tarlabaşı envision a nice future, but it's one that has nothing to do with Istanbul -- they depict a lot of blond white people calmly strolling these large, empty sidewalks lined by ultramodern buildings. Istanbul is never going to look like that, and frankly, wouldn't it be a shame if it did?

This post is already longer than I intended (see what I mean about complicated?), so I'll save the details of our visit for another post.
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