Tarlabaşı, Istanbul

Metropolitan Istanbul is huge, with an official population of around 14 million and an actual population of some 18 million. It comprises an area of 5,343 square kilometers on two continents. Although Istanbul is a decentralized city, Taksim (Beyoǧlu) is commonly accepted to be its heart. For many centuries, Beyoǧlu, a section of Istanbul near the historic peninsula but outside the old city walls, has been home to many minority groups, including Jews, Armenians, Levantines, and many other non-Muslims. Its demographics have shifted with changing conditions over time. There are now fewer historical minorities and larger numbers of Syrians, Africans, and other more recent immigrant groups. Taksim, the locus of Turkey’s social memory, has always been the central site of political activism. The Gezi protests, the largest public demonstration in Turkish history, began two years ago when authorities felled a tree in Taksim’s Gezi Park to launch construction of a shopping mall.

Taksim Square adjoins Tarlabaşı, a district that has historically consisted of numerous distinct neighborhoods. The departure of non-Muslim inhabitants due to state actions in 1942 (Varlik tax) and 1955 (events of 6/7 September) left many Tarlabaşı apartments empty. With increased migration to Istanbul from the 1960s until the late 1990s, many people from different regions of Anatolia moved to Tarlabaşı, mostly taking up residence in these vacant apartments. They located mainly in clusters, giving rise to many unique and lively small neighborhoods. For several decades, Tarlabaşı was a poor district that was largely ignored by municipal authorities. Recent gentrification has only exacerbated its social problems. The city has forced the owners of 78 residential buildings to sell their properties to the government to make way for expensive new developments, with the result that many residents have been displaced without nearby alternative housing options. Urban experts argue that demolishing so many historical buildings amounts to a destruction of history. Many former inhabitants of the area are now spread around Istanbul.

Tarlabaşı is arguably Istanbul’s only truly multicultural district. There are many churches and synagogues here. On the street one can meet Erasmus students from Europe; refugees from Africa, Syria, and Asia; Roma, Kurds, and other migrants from Anatolian cities, especially from Eastern Turkey; and transvestites. The urban fabric is dilapidated, with very old and insecure buildings, most of which are in danger of collapsing. The average income is low and many residents are day laborers without social or health insurance.

PASAJ is an independent artists’ initiative and art space located on Kahya Bey Sokak, close to a busier street, Ömer Hayyam, in Tarlabaşı. PASAJ was originally attracted by the centrality and low rents of the area. After one and a half years here, however, it has come to recognize the vibrant life of the district as an asset as well. The initiative has many Kurdish, Roma, and newly arrived Syrian neighbors. The local residents know each other and partake in an active, social street life. Women sit outside their houses on spring days and wedding parties with music and dancing are held in the streets. As its event venue, PASAJ uses a corner restaurant of just ten square meters that is owned by an art enthusiast. Neighbors have responded very positively to the events held in the space.

A web-based, interactive map will be created, featuring short interviews and other material. This will be one of a number of mediums used to advocate for the people who have been forced out of the district by gentrification.

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