Fall in Love with Tarlabaşı Before Tarlabaşı Falls into Oblivion

How urban regeneration projects are destroying the lives of Istanbul’s poor

by Esther Wagner

Coming from Istanbul’s well-known Taksim square and walking down Tarlabaşı Street one feels like entering a different world- one without human beings, or any other sign of life for that matter.

All the houses facing the wide boulevard and some of those hidden in side streets branching out from Tarlabaşı have been left to be inhabited by Istanbul’s cats and dogs after their rightful tenants and even owners have been forcefully evicted or tricked into selling their property. But the cats and dogs will not be allowed to stay for too long.

The reason why Tarlabaşı had to see most of it’s inhabitants leave the area was in order to make place for Istanbul’s most ambitious urban regeneration project yet. A street that was once lined with the most beautiful Ottoman style mansions and apartment buildings that date back to the 19th century and used to house a large part of Istanbul’s Greek population will soon be turned into a massive construction project including Ottoman style town houses, offices, hotels and yet another shopping mall as if Istanbul suffers a lack thereof…

All this is legally possible due to a new legislation that was introduced in 2007 (Law number 5366) and which stated that the “Renewal Council” has superior powers over the “Preservation Council”, meaning the one has the right to either overrule the other or even stage projects without conferring either with the public or the Preservation Council at all. This means that unfortunately the Tarlabaşı regeneration project that is about to destroy almost 300 of Istanbul’s finest remnants of the Ottoman past and the early Republic will most likely not be the last contradictory urban renewal plan Istanbul’s citizens will have to witness.

However, as conflicting as it is to watch those buildings being demolished (proponents of the regeneration project have argued that it is necessary to make the area safer against earthquakes after what the world witnessed in Van, and some argue that the neighborhood simply did not look nice anymore and that companies responsible for remodeling the area have promised to keep the facades of the houses intact), there is one dreadful consequence of this project that leaves no place for discussion: the personal consequences this urban renewal project has for the people who once lived there.

Having been paid not even close to what the municipality will sell the new apartments for once the construction is finished, Tarlabaşı’s old inhabitants are forced to find another place to live. Their community is torn apart for good and their livelihood as well, since many of them had their own shops within the neighborhood or worked as cleaning ladies or garbage collectors in the area. The city has promised those people that it would find another place to live that would equal their quality of life in Tarlabaşı. However, the place they came up with is called the TOKI housing project, it is almost a two hour commute away from the Tarlabaşı neighborhood, a new housing project in the middle of nowhere without any job opportunities or schools for the children. In addition, the rent is far too expensive there for most of Tarlabaşı’s former residents. This is why most of the people who chose to move to into the TOKI housing project have either returned to Tarlabaşı and its surroundings or are trying to find a place to live somewhere else that is realistically affordable for them.

Since the future of the former residents of Tarlabaşı was apparently to no concern to the city’s urban planners while developing their project, it will be soon. Istanbul, a city that interestingly enough has never had as many homeless people as other big metropolises is now facing a rising amount of beggars and homeless people on the street, due to the before mentioned urban renewal projects that are driving the poorest of the poor out of their houses.  We have seen this in Sulukule with the Turkish Roma population once living there and now with the Tarlabaşı neighborhood.

If urban renewal projects are meant to ameliorate and beautify the profile of the city, it looks like within Istanbul, the exact opposite has been achieved, with the loss of beautiful old Ottoman houses and the arrival of many of its former residents on the street.

One wonders: What is it that the AKP has in mind for Istanbul?

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