A gritty bite of Turkish delight
You won't find it on any lists of top 10 things to do in Istanbul but don't miss out on the city's most exciting 'no-go' neighbourhood - before it's gone, writes ADAM ALEXANDER
Mention the name Tarlabasi to any Istanbul resident and their reaction will put you off going there forever. “Tarlabasi is dirty,” they say. “Tarlabasi is dangerous!”
Looking for an affordable place to live, I had no choice but to at least consider an area where the rents are low. With Istanbul’s most famous main shopping avenue, Istiklal, only yards away, I also found myself drawn by the fact that you could not get any closer to the commercial and cultural heart of Istanbul. A feeling only emboldened by passing landmarks on the way such as the Grand Hotel De Londres – where it is said Agatha Christie wrote Murder on The Orient Express – and the even grander British Consulate nearby.
The only thing I could think of as I crossed the single, busy highway that conveniently amputates Tarlabasi from the next-door tourist meccas of Istanbul was: how bad can it really be?
Tarlabasi is a neighbourhood in the Beyoglu district in Istanbul, stretching from Taksim Square in the north to Tepebasi in the south. Historically, it was home to the city’s Greek population – a prosperous neighbourhood of Greeks and Armenians until the 1950s, before a series of pogroms and discriminatory government policies led to the forced departure of most of these Christian residents.
Today, the tall, crumbling Ottoman-era houses built on a hillside still speak tantalisingly of much grander times. In the 1990s, large numbers of Kurdish immigrants from eastern Turkey moved in to join the local Roma population already here.
As a result, today less than half a mile from Istanbul’s five-star hotels, child shepherds can be seen herding flocks of sheep through the streets and old Kurdish and Gypsy women wrapped in headscarves hang baskets on long ropes out of their top-floor windows so kids in the street below can fetch them bread. Rag and bone men push their carts along the densely populated maze of narrow streets advertising and even singing their wares to the rooftops. Like scenes from an Anatolian village.
So yes, I think it’s fair to say I fell in love with the place instantly.
But all that is not even the beginning of Tarlabasi’s allure. Having lived here for more than three months now, I still have to pinch myself when I wander home at night into one of the friendliest, most electric atmospheres in which I’ve ever lived – ancient, visceral and absolutely buzzing with life. A place caught in a time-warp that looks and feels like a neighbourhood of New York at the turn of the last century, or more thrillingly like being on the set of Once Upon a Time in America. Except that Tarlabasi’s friendly, soccer-mad kids simply don’t make the grade as hoodlums.
Sadly though, there is another more disturbing movie I am reminded of living here sometimes, which is Schindler’s List. Not as fanciful as it sounds when you’re in a place peopled by the persecuted such as the Kurds and the Roma, and people still dress like the 1930s. Or when you hear residents have already been forced out of their homes under a huge government/big business “regeneration” plan which aims to demolish hundreds of buildings here to make way for high-end homes, offices, hotels and a shopping mall. And definitely not when you see the giant posters erected on the edge of Tarlabasi showing how suspiciously blonde everyone’s going to look when it’s finished. Which is when you begin to suspect a slightly more sinister reason, perhaps, for the scare stories that still continue about Tarlabasi.
“I saw this before in places like Baltimore, where I lived,” says David Harvey, director of the Centre for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, on a visit to Tarlabasi recently.
“Neighbourhoods that are very vibrant become dead. Dead, because the population that’s now living in them is driving BMWs and has bars across its windows and doesn’t speak to anybody. Whereas once upon a time there was a lot of street-life around and that’s no longer going to be the case when it’s thoroughly gentrified.”
If you would like to become a sponsor or a volunteer or find out more, contact the Tarlabasi Community Centre (TTM), which provides educational, social and psychological support to the residents of Tarlabasi.