The History of Tarlabaşı
People have been building homes and living in the Tarlabaşı area of Istanbul since 1535, when non-Muslim diplomats began to settle in the imperial Ottoman city. In 1870, after a fire consumed large swaths of the wooden buildings in Pera (today’s Beyoğlu), the municipality – itself a new administrative concept in the city – laid out the district at the drawing board for the first time, following “Western” standards in its planning, with most houses built in stone to diminish the ever-present danger of fire.
With the turn of the century, Tarlabaşı became the neighbourhood of the non-Muslim lower-middle class: Greek, Armenian, and Jewish craftsmen, smaller merchants and employees serving the businessmen and diplomats around İstiklal Caddesi, then called La Grande Rue de Pera, or Cadde-i Kebir amongst Muslims (Esen, 2007).
The houses in Tarlabaşı are unique examples of turn-of-the-century Levantine architecture in Turkey: slim, four-storey bow-fronted homes that huddle along winding, narrow streets. The ground floors often served as stores or workshops – a very large percentage of the furniture in Istanbul at that time came, for example, from carpenters in Tarlabaşı.
With the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Greece and the newly founded Turkish Republic decreed a population exchange that led to an exodus of Ottoman Greeks from Turkey. Greeks residing in Istanbul were exempt from that regulation and allowed to stay – at least for a while.
The Wealth Tax (Varlık Vergisi), targeting non-Muslim citizens and signed into law in 1942, impoverished many of the merchants and craftsmen in Tarlabaşı; while some went to jail because they were unable to pay, sometimes leaving their stores and workshops in the hands of their Turkish apprentices, others simply ran out on their tax debts, abandoning everything they owned. On Sept. 6 and 7 in 1955, after the beginning of the Cyprus crisis, the Turkish government under Adnan Menderes organized pogroms on non-Muslim Istanbul citizens during which numerous houses, shops, and churches were looted and devastated – and in some cases even completely destroyed.
An elderly Armenian resident, 24 years old at the time, recalls the attacks: “A neighbour put up a Turkish flag in front of our store to protect it from the looters. The Greek-Orthodox church in Dolapdere was demolished; they threw everything on the floor, I saw it with my own eyes. Children wanted to pick up money that had been scattered from the collection box, but their parents scolded them and told them not to touch that filthy gavur money.” (Gavur is the pejorative term in Turkish for non-Muslims.) “Can you believe the attitude of these people?” he added. “These coins were Turkish; the money was Turkish and bore the profile of Atatürk.”
With tensions still high following the pogroms, many of the remaining Istanbul Greeks left the city in the years that followed. Today, very few of the original non-Muslim inhabitants are left in Tarlabaşı. Groups of Greek visitors can sometimes be seen searching the streets for the houses of their childhood and of their families.
In the early 1950s, waves of rural migration led to profound demographic and socio-economic changes in Istanbul. Empty houses in Tarlabaşı and other neighbourhoods were soon claimed by workers arriving from all over Anatolia. Young men started working alongside local master craftsmen, or usta, and sometimes went on to open their own stores and workshops. Yusuf Karapinar, a shoemaker, got his start in the profession at the age of 8, as an apprentice in a Greek family. “They were lovely people, extremely nice to me,” he said. “During the month of Ramadan, they never ate in front of me and my mentor’s wife always insisted on cooking an iftar meal for all of us.” Forty years later, Yusuf Usta is today one of the very last shoemakers in the neighbourhood and his shop is threatened with demolition. Turan Usta, who works with Yusuf and his son Kadir Karapinar and has been a shoemaker for 45 years, is angry about the prospect: “If they tear Tarlabaşı down, it will be the end of the artisans and of the craftsmanship here.”
Following the military coup in 1980 and the subsequent implementation of neo-liberal policies in Turkey, radical urban restructuring in Istanbul left its stamp on Tarlabaşı. As in many Western cities, the rapidly expanding construction sector focussed on brown- and green-field development at the urban outskirts, far away from the city centre, which was left to become dilapidated and decayed. This was especially true for Tarlabaşı, the lower part of the formerly elegant district of Pera; physically cut off from the rest of Beyoğlu in 1988 by the disputed six-lane Tarlabaşı Boulevard, it was literally left to rot. And while early signs of development and gentrification started to appear in other parts of the district starting in the 1990s, Tarlabaşı was exempt from any renovation efforts.
As a result of the intensifying Turkish-Kurdish civil war, Tarlabaşı began to receive a large number of Kurdish migrants in the early 1990s. Many of those newly arriving had been forcibly displaced from their villages; those who were too poor to move elsewhere settled in the small, run-down apartments on the lower, less popular side of Tarlabaşı Boulevard. Musa, a Kurd from Siirt, came to Tarlabaşı 15 years ago and now runs a small shop selling second-hand furniture. He says he sometimes misses his home village, but his three children were born and have grown up in the neighbourhood: “They belong here. Tarlabaşı is their home and it would be difficult for them to have to move anywhere else now.” Musa, himself a tenant, emphasizes that he does not want to be forced out of his home a second time: “The government chased us 2,000 kilometres to Istanbul, and now they want to chase us out again? I don’t think so.”
In 2006 the Turkish Cabinet turned a 20,000-square-meter part of Tarlabaşı into an Urban Renewal Area in accordance with the disputed Law No. 5366; in 2007, the tender for the planned project was awarded to GAP Inşaat, a subsidiary of Çalık Holding. The CEO of the holding company is Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After the official announcement in 2008 by the Beyoğlu Municipality of the urban-renewal project “Tarlabaşı Yenileniyor” (“Tarlabaşı is Being Renewed”), people started to leave the area. But many residents remain, despite claims by the mayor of the Beyoğlu district, AKP politician Ahmet Misbah Demircan, in August 2010 that sales agreements had been reached with 70 percent of the house owners. Debate continues over the accuracy of Demircan’s claim, an assessment complicated by the fact that the percentage of tenants in Tarlabaşı is very high. Seventy percent of area residents rent their homes, compared to 20 to 30 percent in Istanbul as a whole. Some tenants have stayed even though their former landlord has already sold the building to GAP Inşaat; some because of the proximity between their living and work spaces, some because they cannot afford to move, and others because they simply do not want to leave.
The timeline of the project is still uncertain: While it was originally scheduled to be finished by 2010, only four buildings have been demolished thus far, with numerous court cases between property owners and GAP Inşaat still pending.
Esen, Orhan; Lanz, Stephan (2007): Self-Service City: Istanbul, b_books (in German)