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