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The Changing Face of Istiklal

Many complain that the Istanbul neighborhood’s secular, multicultural spirit has been replaced with one that represents a more conservative Turkey.

by Emel Altay 9 April 2019

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, for the last few months, we have been making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

 

Istiklal Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that runs through Istanbul’s historic Beyoglu district, has been a symbol of the city's diverse cultural life for decades. Stretching for a kilometer and a half (.93 miles), this tree-lined boulevard was once filled with bookstores, theaters, nightclubs, and bars popular with both locals and tourists, in a city of more than 14 million inhabitants.

 

But Istiklal looks very different now, with its specialist shops, cinema halls, and pubs being replaced by a growing number of shisha cafes, restaurants that don’t serve alcohol and clothes shops that cater to the more traditional tastes of Arab tourists and religious Turks alike.

 

Istanbul streetIstiklal Street is still vibrant, but the mood is changing.

 

Many believe that the government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who began his political career as mayor of Istanbul – is trying to replace Istiklal’s secular, multicultural spirit with one that fits the vision of a far more conservative Turkey.

 

Emre Pehlivan works at Istiklal’s Denizler Bookstore, which specializes in Istanbul and maritime history.

 

“There are no more places like ours left in Istiklal Street, and we too are struggling to survive,” he said. “Istiklal is no longer the culture, art, and entertainment hub that it used to be. People coming here are uneducated and unqualified, and the whole street is now full of counterfeit perfumeries, fast-food outlets, and cheap shops selling underwear.”

 

One of the most prominent buildings in this area used to be the Ataturk Cultural Center, a symbol of the modern, secular republic. Now the grand building is just a ruin, lying in the shadow of a new mosque that is being built nearby.

 

Istanbul new mosqueThe new mosque under construction.

 

Yeliz Yirmibes, a 32-year-old reporter, moved to Istanbul in 2004.

 

“Back then, we used to come to Istiklal Street for theater and cinema,” she recalled. “There are still some nice venues left, but very few. There are almost no bookstores anymore and there were so many in the past,” she said.

 

Politics have further intruded onto the street’s busy life. At its top lies Taksim Square, a landmark that owes its worldwide fame to the mass protests held in 2013 against the government’s plans to destroy one of the city’s last remaining public parks.

 

Then, on 19 March, 2016, a suicide bomber killed five people in a terrorist attack right on Istiklal. This event had a significant impact on the street’s popularity among both locals and tourists.

 

“Beyoglu’s economy is dependent on tourism,” says the manager of an Istiklal pub, who asked to remain anonymous. “The terrorist attack in 2016 and, prior to that, the mass protests in Taksim Square, spooked Western tourists. Before these events, there were many foreigners living here, but now they have left and the main customers are visitors from Arab countries.

 

“This has not been a healthy transformation for this neighborhood, and many original small businesses are struggling to make ends meet,” he added.

 

A Bygone Age

 

Can Ozben is the second-generation manager of the Mandabatmaz coffee shop, an Istanbul institution that has been serving guests its own exclusive brand of Turkish coffee for the last 52 years. He agrees that changing tourist demographics have impacted local businesses.

 

“Istiklal Street has long been associated with theater and cinema. Youngsters used to come here to drink coffee before plays, and Taksim Square was a meeting point. Lately, shops and small businesses have experienced a visible transformation due to the rising numbers of Arab tourists,” Ozben said.

 

“I was born and raised here, but Beyoglu has lost its old spirit. Bookstores and cafes gave way to doner [kebab] shops and fast-food outlets.”

 

Umit Engin – who owns a once-popular Istiklal bookstore, Robinson Crusoe 389 – also misses the street’s former diversity.

 

“Today, if you look at Beyoglu, it resembles a Middle Eastern city,” he said. “And yet, we have not forgotten that just 15 years ago almost all shops in this area had signs in Greek as well,” he added.

 

Some business owners have made their peace with the street’s changing profile. Mustafa Topcuglu has been selling local delicacies, such as chebureki pie and kibbeh meatballs, in this street for 32 years.

 

“It is true that Beyoglu and Istiklal Street have changed a lot over time. The most difficult years for us were 2013, when the mass protests took place in Taksim, and 2016, after the suicide bomb attack. There was nobody left, and all foreign tourists were gone,” said Topcuglu. “But now, everything is better.

 

“There is a different crowd these days, since most artists who had lived here have left Istiklal. But there are crowds in this street again, and that is good for my business. I cannot complain,” he concluded.

 

A further threat to Istiklal’s bohemian spirit has been government plans to redevelop much of Beyoglu into an upscale residential area.

 

“For that to happen, old residents have to be evicted from the existing buildings so that they can be demolished and replaced by luxurious apartment and office blocks,” said lawyer and academic Cihan Uzuncarsili Baysal.

 

“Beyoglu has turned into a construction site. Former residents have left Istiklal after theater halls, bookstores, cinemas, and affordable restaurants were closed. However, the new, rich residents have not arrived, despite the government’s expectations,” Baysal added.

 

Change may be on its way. In a huge reversal of its fortunes, Erdogan’s AK Party finally lost control of Istanbul in the most recent elections, having held sway there in various forms since the 1990s. Although the party is demanding a recount in a number of contested districts, some locals hope that this defeat may signal a different direction for the city at large and Istiklal in particular.

 

Bookshop owner Engin sees the fortunes of the entire area as inextricably linked with Turkish politics.

 

“When the political climate changes, I am sure that Istanbul, Beyoglu, and Istiklal Street will regain their former glory,” he said.

 

Pehlivan, from the Denizler Bookstore, also remains optimistic. “Istanbul is the center of the world, and Beyoglu and Istiklal Street are the center of Istanbul,” he said. “Their old spirit, full of art and culture, will return one day. I hope that day will come soon.”

 

Istanbul street dilapidatedSome parts of the street are dilapidated and in need of repair.

Emel Altay graduated from the department of radio, television, and cinema at Marmara University. Between 2010 and 2017 she worked at several magazines in Turkey. She is now a freelance journalist writing for Journo, Zero Istanbul, Istanbul Art News, Art Unlimited, and other media.

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