Between thriving Beyoglu and the Golden Horn, Tarlabaşı could be the most cheerfully doomed neighborhood in the world. I’ve been meaning to pay this area a visit for some time, but have been deterred by the fact that some other people whose work I really respect have already delved into this dilapidated old Greek hood which is largely populated by Kurdish migrants from Eastern Turkey as well as Roma. Regardless, I felt I needed to see this area before the last vestiges of its current community are driven out in the ongoing gentrification or “urban revitalization” or “historic protection” — whatever you’d like to call it — process is complete. What I found truly surprised me. It’s the friendliest neighborhood I’ve encountered in Istanbul, and perhaps the poorest.
There are plenty of men on street corners who don’t want their photographs taken for reasons you can probably imagine, yet there was no hostility to such an obvious foreigner poking about. In fact, most people were positively playful, and the spirit wasn’t limited to the children. Women in headscarves are normally camera shy, but down here, I was able to engage more than a few in conversation who at first didn’t want their picture taken, said no, and then laughed and said words to the effect of “Oh, all right.”
You can see why the municipality of Beyoğlu wants to “regenerate” the neighborhood even if you don’t agree with the manner in which they’re doing it. This is not only a prime area given its location, but an area rich in the sort of architecture you can convert into guesthouses for tourists or funky little cafes as well as other profit-generating enterprises. It’s also a mess. There are hurdacı (scrap collectors) carts everywhere. And then there are the men hovering on street corners who don’t want their photos taken.
For me the question is what’s going to happen to the families living here. It’s easy when you live in a nice house to judge the conditions down here as squalid and unacceptable, but I’ve never seen such enthusiastic and happy children playing in the streets. That doesn’t mean the environment is good but I couldn’t help but feel conflicted about what will happen when the last families are moved out. When I crossed the boulevard which gives this neighborhood its name and sought out the more trodden bits of Beyoğlu I felt restless and didn’t want to stay. Somehow something didn’t feel real anymore. Nobody was smiling in quite the same way.