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Tarlabasi

intro T

 

Last week we wandered down one side of the hill from Taksim to hip and happening Cihangir. This week I thought we’d head down the other side of the hill, to Tarlabasi (Tar-luh-BAH-shuh).

A mere ten minute walk separates these two neighbourhoods, but they may as well be on different planets. While Cihangir is Istanbul’s boho darling, Tarlabasi is the black sheep. No hotel concierge is about to recommend you take a stroll through the place. Quite the opposite – he’d give you a funny look if you asked about it and tell you to steer clear. Drugs, crime, you name it, it was all there.

But I was curious to explore it, intrigued by its history and current circumstances. So I decided, one quick glance – and if it seemed really dodgy, retreat.

Ready?

 

Part 1: From Greek to grotty

Tarlabasi is within spitting distance of glamourous Istiklal street, upmarket hotels and some of Istanbul’s major cultural institutions. So it’s definitely a shock when you step off the main road and descend into the neighbourhood.

Like Balat and Fener it was once happily Greek with charming row houses but is now poor and struggling, a mixed community of Kurds, Roma and Africans. However, Tarlabasi is much closer to ruin than its friends across the Golden Horn. The government has started to demolish large chunks in a so called ‘renovation’ plan that will see old replaced by faux old. Yuck in other words.

Only they seem to have got half way through that process and downed tools. They’ve gutted entire streets of buildings then just left them completely exposed, a windfall for desperate scavengers who have ripped out everything they can to burn or sell. Floorboards, windows, doors, security bars, all gone. What were once lovely bay fronted homes are now devoured, rubbish filled, stinky wrecks.

In the midst of the mess, however, is the neighbourhood’s original Greek Orthodox Church that still stands tall and proud.

So that’s the first impression you get. Pristine Greek church in the middle of an area that wouldn’t look out of place in a war zone. A war zone with lots of clothes hanging out to dry that is.

 

next door neighbours

next door neighbours

 

 

 

death row

death row

 

 

 

oh dear

oh dear

 

 

 

not quite what Ataturk had pictured

not quite what Ataturk had pictured

 

 

 

we will say a prayer for you little ones

we will say a prayer for you little ones

 

 

 

Apparently 400,000 people arrive in Istanbul each year in search of work. Kurds from eastern Turkey, Armenians as well as those from further afield, Africa. We met Abdul from Nigeria catching his breath on the side of a road in Tarlabasi. His impressions of Istanbul are a million miles from any tourist’s. While they are busy marvelling at the views and the mosques, he’s scratching around desperately trying to make a living. A uni graduate, he’s now in the recycling trade, collecting valuable trash to sell. I call it garbage and he says, no, go take a look in his cart. I open it to see a muddle of used plastic bags – gold not garbage.

 

Abdul from Nigeria, graduate turned garbage scavanger

Abdul from Nigeria, graduate turned garbage scavenger

 

 

 

Part 2: Next impressions

Holding Coco’s hand more tightly than usual, we continued to explore the streets of Tarlabasi. And slowly, things seemed to improve. There are large areas of the neighbourhood where the houses are still intact and occupied, where life seems pretty normal. Women putting out the washing (I finally discovered how they get their clothes across those lines, using a pulley system), men playing cards and kids playing on the streets.

 

the washing line explained

the washing line explained

 

 

 

the rug seller

the rug seller

 

 

 

grandeur amongst the rubble

grandeur amongst the rubble

 

 

 

a little lace goes a long way

a little lace goes a long way

 

 

 

home comforts, no matter what state your home is in

home comforts, no matter what state your home is in

 

 

 

they're fed, clothed, loved - what more?

they're fed, clothed, loved - what more?

 

 

 

In fact, Tarlabasi, the much maligned neighbourhood of Istanbul, is where Coco had her first play with local kids. The delightful soccer mad Sait, his little sister Semanur and a couple of mates.

 

they all speak soccer

they all speak soccer

 

 

 

Serhat and Sait, soccer stars of tomorrow?

Serhat and Sait, soccer stars of tomorrow?

 

 

 

Sait's sister, Semanur - did her future just walk right by her?

Sait's sister, Semanur - did her future just walk right by her?

 

 

 

happiness is his No 53

happiness is his No 53

 

 

 

taking Semanur for a spin

taking Semanur for a spin

 

 

 

Part 3: Men at work, not

Many of the men in Tarlabasi are very busy sitting inside the local cafes playing cards or a game called ‘Okey’. Unusually they were welcoming when they saw us with noses pressed up on the window, trying to peer in. Come, sit, have some cay (tea). Perhaps they miss female company as the women seem to hang out at home, where I assume they do their socialising as well as domestic chores.

 

poker face

poker face

 

 

 

a couple of hearts

a couple of hearts

 

 

 

cay and cards

cay and cards

 

 

 

a good day at the card table?

a good day at the card table?

 

 

 

the men play, the boy works

the men play, the boy works

 

 

 

welcome, come play our game, 'Okey'

welcome, come play our game, 'Okey'

 

 

 

men's and women's business

men's and women's business

 

 

 

Part 3: But then…

After the uplifting soccer game and cafe hopping the day grew colder and more grey, both literally and metaphorically.

We passed by Sait again who was now busy doing chores with his older sister, Bahar. I don’t know, it was something about the way they were clumsily wielding axes and other tools around, trying desperately to break up the floorboards that lay scattered on the road that disturbed me.

 

Bahar, chopping up floorboards

Bahar, chopping up floorboards

 

 

 

around the corner from struggle street, opulent furniture is being made

around the corner from struggle street, opulent furniture is being made

 

 

 

Sait, in particular, seems like such a good kid. But weighed down by a long list of responsibilities I imagine.

 

Sait has many crosses to bear

Sait has many crosses to bear

 

 

 

Saying goodbye to them, we made our way back up the steep street, passing by other locals doing the same thing –  it was floorboard chopping time in Tarlabasi.

 

the kebab seller and the wood collectors

the kebab seller and the wood choppers

 

 

 

'recycling'

'recycling'

 

 

 

just trying to keep warm

just trying to keep warm

 

 

 

Part 4: Kid’s playground

The next day we visited the sun had finally decided to make an appearance – and all the energy the kids of Tarlabasi had stored for the last few days stuck inside their tiny homes seemed to explode onto the streets. They ran wild, darting in and out of all the gutted houses, kicking, throwing, screaming. Sure, there are no swings or brightly coloured plastic play equipment in this kid’s playground but I suspect it’s more fun. Especially when there doesn’t seem to be a single parent around to rein you in.

 

it's a child's playground now

it's a kid's playground now

 

 

 

kids rule

kids rule

 

 

 

play equipment

play equipment

 

 

 

until that grandma comes down with her stick

until that grandma comes down with her stick

 

 

 

is that a Pythagorean triangle?

is that a Pythagorean triangle?

 

 

 

learning life lessons - but not Greek

learning life lessons - but not Greek

 

 

But of course the crumbling environment also poses many hazards, especially for the younger kids. If the thick smoke from the coal burning doesn’t get them, the half demolished buildings with exposed staircases and windows just might.

 

child proofing required

child proofing required

 

 

There’s so much that’s wrong about the government’s ‘renovation’ plans in Tarlabasi.

They’re not just getting rid of the old buildings – they’re getting rid of a community, one that seems to function well despite the challenges they face. How do you rebuild that?

It felt as if Tarlabasi was disappearing as we walked, that if I looked back there’d be nothing – or worse, fake ‘old’ buildings filled with new shiny people. I know it’s more expensive to restore old buildings than build new ones, but at what cost? The loss of a city’s history, its communities, the things that make it ‘it’.

Getting late, I decided it was time to leave so we said goodbye to Sait and his sisters and made our way out. Of all the kids I’ve met so far on this project, I warmed to them the most. Almost zero conversation but such a strong connection. So it felt wrong to just up and go, leaving them to such an uncertain future.

 

 

goodbye Sait and Semanur

goodbye Sait and Semanur

 

 

 

goodbye Bahar, another bright spark amongst the grey

goodbye Bahar, another bright spark amongst the grey

 

 

 

The Wrap

It would be naive to think that nothing bad happens in Tarlabasi. And in its current state, much of the neighbourhood looks as desperate as some of its people. But once you get over the initial shock, the place grows on you – largely thanks to the kids. Years into the future I may not remember the stench of rotting garbage or coal burning. Or the gutted wood and plaster carcases. But I will remember the mad energy of those boys chasing their shadows down the hills. And I doubt I’ll forget Sait and his sisters. I’m not religious but I pray they grow into happy, healthy adults. With maybe a soccer star between them for good measure.

 

what hand will they be dealt next?

what hand will they be dealt next?

 

 

It’s taken me a while to get a bigger picture of what’s happening in Istanbul but at week three, I’ve got some idea. While all the tourists are oohing and ahhing over the Top Ten sights, the rest of old Istanbul is crumbling – especially if an earthquake strikes. The fear of that happening combined with the current real estate boom is proving disastrous for neighbourhoods such as Tarlabasi – the government is gloves off with the whole heritage thing and is demolishing large chunks of historic areas all under the guise of ‘renovation’ and building ‘new old’. Now that is what I call scary – dodgy – dangerous.

 

 

smoke and rubble but at least the washing's done

smoke and rubble but at least the washing's done

 

 

 

seeing Tarlabasi in a good light

seeing Tarlabasi in a good light

 

 

On the ‘home front

Coco’s not a huge fan of exploring and photographing, something she calls ‘blogging’. She puts up with it at the best of times. But this week was a doozy. Sure, the soccer bit was fun but then it all got a little hairy. To be fair, the mood in Tarlabasi was at times pretty dark. But it was the jerk who kept finding us and honing in on Coco that was the real deal breaker. He was harmless enough but on the last visit he freaked Coco out and we had to leave. And yet today I asked her:

‘Coco, did you enjoy Tarlabasi?’

‘Well, I liked the soccer boys. But the buildings and that guy, they were not good.’

But when I asked Coco if she thought it would be a good place to live she said absolutely, yes. Why? Because there was lots of kids to play with and lots of things to do.

So the poorest, most desperate neighbourhood we’ve explored so far is apparently the best, even with that evil jerk guy thrown in. Sometimes I think kids really should rule the world.

 —

This suburb was brought to you by Fiona Ryan-Clark

 —

We’re leaving for Paris on Saturday so the next and last post from Istanbul will be on Friday. See you then – hopefully…

 

  1. Di says:

    Thanks again Lou for a wonderful photo journey. A bit sad, this one. But Coco’s comments made up for it!! I, as I am sure we all are, am enjoying your insights into cities and towns we would never experience otherwise, through your lens and your comments. Thank you.
    Di xx

  2. Di @ beachtropic says:

    Child proofing required…..wonderful light

  3. tim says:

    Wow, a tough chapter no doubt. Thanks for braving the gritty as well as pretty neighborhoods.

  4. Sue says:

    I thought the week before was good, but this is even better. Take care on your travels.

  5. Trish says:

    Found myself crying through this one. The photographs were wonderful, plus of course the dialogue. Many thanks.

  6. TBERT says:

    You and Coco are so brave and adventurous. I really admire how you capture the real beauty amongst the bleak and the depressing. I love how you capture the connections and ironies/contradictions within a place or a concept. Thanks for your inspiration, looking forward to the rest of the adventures!

  7. Peter Roberts says:

    Have enjoyed your journey very much so far however after viewing and reading this posting felt I needed to say, ‘well done’! You managed to draw me right in and almost feel what you were telling us. You are inspirational!

  8. Wayne says:

    Louise, your sensitivity and artistry captured in images compels me to think something extra every step along the way…

  9. Toni Mostyn says:

    I guess it just proves that there is always a positive to everything. I wish we could always retain the simplicity and innocence of children! So humbling.

  10. debbie mc says:

    Lousie, really admire you and Coco and enjoying these beautiful photos of places that I know so little about. I am waiting with baited breath however to see Paris through your eyes….

  11. Louise says:

    Hi all – Thanks so much, so glad you found the post interesting and moving. And yes Toni, I know it’s a cliche but if only we adults could keep on being kids, the world might be a happier place.

  12. Ellen says:

    Guess u could say its the redfern kingscross of istanbul lol

    • Louise says:

      Ellen – I was trying to think of a Sydney equivalent and there really isn’t one. Wooloomooloo maybe, for the rich and poor living cheek by jowl. But nowhere in Sydney is half demolished, so poor and at risk of being wiped out. I know what you mean about Redfern/Kings Cross but really, they are upmarket by comparison to Tarlabasi. Hope you’re keeping well.

  13. Adriana_G says:

    Another wonderful journey – I love seeing ‘suburbs’ through your eyes.

  14. Kalinda says:

    Nice one Lou, great work as always

  15. Sharon says:

    As usual reading your post is a highlight of my blog reading each week. Looking forward to getting to know Paris.

  16. Michelle says:

    Heartbreaking, but beautiful. Thank you for sharing Louise.

  17. Louise says:

    Adriana – So glad you enjoyed it.
    Kalinda – Thank you!
    Sharon – Oh I like that, I like it a lot! And Paris, I’m a little excited myself about the prospect of trying to see another side of one of the world’s most photographed cities.
    Michelle – Thanks so much. I’d love to revisit Tarlabasi in five or ten years to see how the story unfolded.

  18. Claire says:

    Hi there… def one of my favourites this one.. be interesting to meet those kids in 10 years time.. Well done Louise – amazing stuff… xxx

  19. Ann says:

    There’s just enough left to see what the area must once have been. So many places are destroying their heritage and communities in the name of “progress”. Sad.

  20. Frederick Hepworth says:

    Thank you Louise these are great images and thanks for the intro to Ara Guler.

  21. Dominic says:

    as a kiwi living in tarlabaşı, i feel like you did miss some of the most important aspects of the neighbourhood. the first would be the rampant gentrification, of which admittedly i am a part of. but really, this place is filling up with germans. and that contrast between the poor Turkish/Roma/Kurdish/African immigrants and the yabanci (foreigners) is one of the most fascinating aspects of the neighbourhood. And i am at a loss wondering how you missed the market. tarlabaşı pazari covers the entire length of the neighbourhood every sunday for the entire day and well into the night, with beautiful streams of hanging bulbs illuminating it as the prices drop and people swarm for the bargains. It brings everybody together for the day, to buy the fresh turkish produce.
    Yes, it is a little gritty. but the people are wonderful and after a while you start to appreciate the grit. for example, in the empty lot next to my building, which is filled with garbage, there is a tree growing sideways, with plastic bags hanging down from every branch. and after a while it starts to resemble a surrealist painting.
    capturing the conflicted spirit of this neighbourhood is very difficult. and you certainly captured a part of it with the children and the cay houses and dilapidated buildings. but i feel like you missed so many other aspects of life here. still, i enjoyed seeing these beautiful pictures of my home.

    • Louise says:

      Dominic – Interesting, thanks for rounding out the picture of what’s happening in Tarlabasi. I had no idea as I didn’t read anything about that in all the information I could find on the area and certainly didn’t see a single other foreigner there on any of my visits. In which area do you live? I’m curious because to my eye, there weren’t any houses or areas that looked gentrified. And the reason why I missed the market is because I can’t shoot seven days a week – I need to process images, write, assemble the blog on at least two days of the week – so sadly yes, I missed it. I’d love to know how Tarlabasi fares in the next five years or so – if it completely gentrifies and the poorer are pushed out. If for some bizarre reason you remember this project, please update it then!

  22. PA says:

    Hi Louise – interesting concept, I’ve had never heard of this place before and I don’t want to sound to critical of your work but I must say I do detect a tang of judgement in your photos. However I’m presuming that results from not having a great amount of time in one place to really get to know it. Also, I always wonder if photographer’s of such photos of children playing in the street, such as the one’s you have of children get permission from the children’s parents to publish on the internet? I know some places around the world are more relaxed about things like this and don’t think too much of it, but I don’t think it would it be tolerated in Australia…

  23. ben reynolds says:

    you have a great job. i love these photos

    • Louise says:

      Ben, I don’t know if you mean I did a great job or I have a great ‘job’. If you meant the latter, can I just say that, well, the pay’s not great (read, zero), and the holidays, they don’t exist, but in terms of being interesting, challenging and rewarding? 10 out of 10. So glad you like my pics.

  24. emily says:

    amazing insight to instabul!! these photos are spot on! I feel they do not leave any gaps what so ever! cant wait to tick this off my bucket list!

  25. Laura says:

    Louise – what a beautiful photographer you are and also what an amazing mother. Besides the places and people you are exploring this project speaks to me a lot about motherhood. I hope in the future your daughter looks back on this amazing trip. I did on the trips my parents took us too. I feel many children these days live confined to their own “suburb” and do not venture out to see how others live – not even in their own cities. I would love to hear you speak more about the what has come up for you and your daughter on this journey. On this particular post of Tarlabasi I loved to hear your daughter’s voice. As a resident of Istanbul I feel that Tarlabasi exists in all of our cities around the world. A pushing out of poverty, culture, communities. I for one agree for Coco and would much rather raise a family in Tarlabasi among a community than in isolated space in the sterile suburbs or shopping malls. This I see a lot in Istanbul and every where else in the world. Thank you for your journey and your eyes.

    • Louise says:

      Laura – Oh, many thanks for these wonderful words. I often think of Tarlabasi and wonder what’s happening there. (Please let me know if you hear of anything.)
      And yes, I hope Coco will always be able to remember this year. And do you know what her favourite city is, the one she’d most like to live in? Istanbul! I love it so much too. I hope when I’m old and grey, Coco and I can go back and retrace our steps – our first stop would be Tarlabasi. All the best to you Laura and wonderful Istanbul.

  26. catandtonicnz.wordpress.com says:

    ADORE the photography!

  27. Franz says:

    Louise, I am catching up on your journey just last year. Your talent in photography and storytelling together present communities that expand well beyond the limits of the two-dimensional page.

    Interestingly, even in older American cities (which are not even that old relative to Istanbul) the dilemma of balancing progress with preserving the past is a tightrope. It would be lovely if every amazing neighborhood in Istanbul could be preserved both in terms of place and people in a crystallized state of being. Practically, we know the relentless march of progress will find its own temporaneous balance with the past and the people who create the essential character of a neighborhood.

    Having said that, I was briefly disturbed by Dominic’s comments about newly-arrived foreigners filling up the neighborhood. However, my readings of the history of Istanbul suggest the city is typical of many dynamic metropolises old and new. Successive waves of foreigners and immigrants have defined the character of the city. It’s when this attraction no longer exists that a city begins to decline.

    • Louise says:

      Very true – what’s the saying? – the only thing that is constant is change. But it’s easier to accept this from a distance – up close and personal, it gets in. Enjoy Istanbul when you go – and yes, it could well be a ‘dream retirement’ contender!

  28. Hülya says:

    Those photos are really fascinating but I wonder that why didn’t you put the photos of Istiklal Street, Cihangir, Princess Islands, Bebek, Fatih. Those parts were also unique, historical and very striking. Tarlabaşı isn’t the picture of Istanbul.

    • Louise says:

      Hi Hulya. My project is about exploring the places that aren’t usually explored by foreigners. Those places you mentioned are indeed very striking but they’re more well-known (I did post on Cihangir by the way). I understand what you’re saying – Istanbul is more than Tarlabasi – but I hope this explains it.

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