Beyoglu: From grime to glamour

Beyoglu IstanbulIn March 2016, a suicide bomber attacked Istiklal Avenue, in the heart of Istanbul’s commercial district. Since then, the city’s most famous street has been a shadow of its former self. The hustle and bustle has slowed to a mere trickle. I wrote the below piece in early January 2015, when times were still good and the street was still busy.

Beyoğlu, that most storied district of Istanbul, is the first place that many new arrivals to the city find themselves. First impressions count. For many visitors, Beyoglu has played a significant part in shaping their perceptions of Istanbul.

The pulsating artery of Istiklal Avenue enthrals most newcomers during their early weeks, but as they grow more familiar with the city they tend to branch out and explore further, discovering quieter, more relaxed places to spend time.

Istanbul is a hectic city at the best of times, so rest and relaxation are valuable for those who live here. After one year in Istanbul I’ve started avoiding the stress of traversing this overcrowded avenue, finding myself going there less and less.

If ever compelled to go to Istiklal, perhaps to meet friends for an evening out, or to visit one of the antique shops, or just to walk between the adjacent metro stations of Taksim and Şişhane, you must be prepared to run the gauntlet of pushing, shoving and jostling international crowds. Most noticeable among these are the Arab tourists often with bandaged heads fresh from hair-implant surgery.

While at the beginning you might have wandered aimlessly savouring the bustle and diversity, now the mission is to penetrate the street as efficiently as possible, ducking and weaving through the crowds, all the while grumpily complaining about how much you dislike coming to this street.

Traversing İstiklal Avenue leaves many people exhausted and irritable. But on those rare quiet moments, perhaps in the early morning when the place is unencumbered by crowds, it’s worth taking the time to glance around and appreciate the imposing European architecture that lines the street side.

The area that is today’s Beyoğlu used to be known by its Greek name Pera, back in the days before the Turkish Republic was founded. Pera has a long history, beginning from the 13th century when it was established as a Genoese trading centre and foreign colony situated within, yet remaining more or less independent from, the Byzantine Empire of the time. In the 15th century, Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city as he founded the Ottoman Empire.

Despite this, Pera held on to its independence, although it allied itself with the Ottoman Empire, which was probably a pragmatic move to ensure its survival. Little of note happened until the 18th century, when the drive to modernise Istanbul resulted in a major transformation of Pera society. Diversity flourished among the largely non-Muslim population, who came from places as far afield as Russia, China and Brazil, along with many others from various European nations.

A multitude of cafes, bars, shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues sprang up as a result of the population’s needs and wants. With all these nationalities living side by side, the mix of languages spoken in Pera formed a regular Tower of Babel effect, as described by the upper-class English travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in her otherwise somewhat unflattering description of Pera’s multicultural population (according to a 2013 article by Özlem Sandikci). This was also the time when various nations established embassies in Pera and staked out their own little patches of territory within the tangle that was Istanbul.

The resulting clusters of European-ness around each embassy (including Greek, French, Swedish, British, Russian and Dutch) added another level of cosmopolitanism to the district and helped develop its story further. Foreigners associated with the embassies built their own churches, designed lavish homes and continued to pursue their usual habits and way of life among these privileged enclaves, away from the influence of the Ottoman Turks.

In the 19th century, there emerged certain elite Ottomans who developed new ideas about reform and therefore wished to recreate the image of Istanbul and change it into that of a Western city (Sandikci, 2013). Pera provided the perfect model for them to follow in their attempts to achieve this aim. So in order to further expand the district in their desired style, these elite set up a government department which took charge of regulating the area and managing its image.

It was an early example of city brand strategy. At that century’s end, things had changed dramatically in Pera. The area had become thoroughly Europeanised and bourgeoise, complete with department stores, posh hotels, expensive restaurants and decadent nightclubs that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Istanbul. Upper class Turks, foreigners, and various minority groups flourished there.

But there were certain elements of society who hated everything that they believed Pera represented. Some Ottoman Turks disliked its sense of slavish European-ness, as if this suggested that Ottoman culture was somehow inferior. Conservative Muslims also disliked Pera, but instead for what they perceived as its immorality. Despite these differences of opinion the area continued to grow and develop, maintaining its strong image while at the same time helping to cement the overall perception among Europeans of Istanbul as a desirable, exotic city. City brand strategy had begun, albeit organic rather than deliberately engineered.

When the Ottoman Empire finally fell, Istanbul’s role within the new Turkish Republic was compromised. The functional yet characterless city of Ankara became the new capital and all the embassies relocated there. Istanbul was relegated to second place, with its exotic elements now viewed as somewhat shabby remnants of a decadent and outdated Ottoman past.

The new nation, led by Atatürk, now had its collective eyes firmly fixed on the notion of ‘Turkishness’. The image of Istanbul in the minds of many Turks, had shifted, but the Istanbul city brand in the minds of Europeans likely remained more or less unchanged. The narrative was strong, much of it emanating from Pera where it had been established and developed over centuries. It would take more than a new capital city to water this down.

But the changes did eventually affect Pera, starting with its name change, casting off the Greek name in favour of the Turkish one: Beyoğlu. The district was gradually ‘Turkified’, undergoing campaigns including one that forced everyone to speak Turkish, another that imposed levies on non-Muslim residents, and assorted incidents of looting, vandalism and destruction of churches, shops and houses in the area. Gradually, foreign residents lost their will to remain in Beyoğlu. Life there was no longer easy or pleasant. There was a mass exodus of the foreign population and lots of buildings were left vacant as a result.

The area’s economic strength diminished and property prices became low. In the 1960s, as Istanbul underwent a phase of industrialisation, an influx of immigrants arrived in the city. They gravitated towards the now-affordable Beyoğlu where they could rent cheap housing, or in many cases occupy abandoned buildings illegally. The character of the area began to shift as numerous marginalised groups set up home there, including sex workers, transvestites, and Roma gypsies.

Brothels were opened, drug pushers became more common, and any remaining affluent residents soon moved to more salubrious parts of the city. By the time the 1970s rolled around, Beyoğlu had become associated with seedy underground lifestyles and petty crime on the margins of Istanbul society. What was once the bourgeois and upper-class Pera was now a place that would have been unrecognisable except for the European architecture that still remained, rearing up with its imposing facades from among the shabbiness.

Today’s Beyoğlu has managed to balance on a fine line between its two identities. The seedy side is still there, with prostitutes peering from second story windows in certain back streets behind Istiklal Avenue. Transgendered prostitutes can be found among certain nightclubs catering for that particular target audience. Drunken punters fill the back alleys at night and no doubt plenty of drugs are available if one knows where to look.

At the same time, this area was and remains famous. It’s very popular among visitors and Istanbullers alike. Beyoğlu is the district of Taksim Square, of the trendy Galata area, of Tophane and its fashionable boutique hotels, and high-rent Cihangir with its droves of affluent residents both foreign and Turkish. The strong place image attracts many tourists to the city, especially wealthy Gulf Arabs, who can be seen in hordes around Taksim and its environs. There are shops, hotels and restaurants springing up to cater for this relatively new Gulf tourism trend, with Arabic signs becoming a common sight around Beyoğlu these days.

There is also the contentious issue of Tarlabasi, a Beyoğlu sub-district bordering Taksim Square on the other side of a large road. Despite concerted efforts at gentrification, this area has remained seemingly stuck at an earlier stage of development. Unlike the rest of Beyoğlu, Tarlabasi retains a reputation for seediness and crime that is not seen as part of a tourist experience but as a real danger.

While most of Beyoğlu may be viewed as an interestingly ‘edgy’ district, Tarlabasi remains a place that locals actively advise foreigners to avoid. Rents there are low, reflecting its perceived reputation as a no-go area. Much has been written about Tarlabasi, and its history is a topic outside the scope of this already oversized post. Suffice to say that many of the existing analyses involve the possible fate of the marginalised communities that still cling onto their lives there. It is an interesting topic worth exploring at a later date.

History shows us that Beyoğlu’s cosmopolitan, somewhat decadent nature was part of its identity from the very first days of its existence. A place narrative of this strength and depth becomes quite resilient to change. Beyoğlu has been able to retain its distinct characteristics. It could be said that the influence of this unique area has done more than any other part of Istanbul to develop the city’s overall reputation and image. Beyoğlu has become a city brand strategy extraordinaire.

(The historical information in this piece was inspired by a journal article entitled: ‘Strolling through Istanbul’s Beyoglu: In-between Difference and Containment’, by Özlem Sandikci)

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