Photo : Laetitia Vancon . Text: Tejeesh Nippun Singh Behl

Not far from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the epicentre of protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where thousands of protestors are locked in a stare-down with the police, there’s another waiting game in progress, in Tarlabaşı. It’s a game that families living in one of Istanbul’s most notorious districts will, in all probability, lose.

Tarlabaşı, located almost in the centre of the city, is a quirky, urban conundrum in the throes of a government gentrification drive. Officially, they are calling it a renewal programm – in reality, it’s a complete makeover and redevelopment, involving tearing down old structures, which are part of Istanbul’s architectural heritage, to make way for a new commercial zone, comprising shopping centres, malls and hotels.

Fatos Alabalik, 39, a slim, energetic woman, and a resident of Tarlabaşı, says she sympathizes with the protestors, but that is the limit of her participation in the country’s tumultuous events of the past several weeks. Her troubles are quite literally, closer to home, given that her own world – her three daughters, Yagmur, 9, Hazel, 7 and Gizel, 1.5, husband Murat, 41 and Murat’s youngest brother Sedat, 29 – is in danger of coming crashing down.

Living here for 11 years, this family of six, like many others, is looking at the end of the road of their stay in Tarlabaşı as the gentrification drive gathers momentum.

Its streets are at once wide and narrow, intended to engender community-bonding, something that survives to this day. They are wide enough for two cars to pass within kissing distance, and narrow enough for clotheslines to be strung across.

The pavements lining the street serve not just as pedestrian pathways, but also as a rendezvous for the women to catch up on gossip. For some years now, these pavements also serve as vantage points for mothers to keep an eye on their children playing in the street, as Tarlabaşı has come to be commonly associated with petty crime, prostitution and drug dealing.

“Most of the time, the girls stay indoors, either watching TV or surfing the net after their homework. It’s not so safe for them to play outside,” says Fatos, sitting in her living room, exhaling after a puff from her cigarette, the concern in her voice palpable.

With just a few residential units slated to be left at the completion of this redevelopment, landlords too have been sharp enough to cash in on the impending demand-supply gap for residential accommodation.

“A month ago, the landlord called, asking us to vacate the apartment in three months though he’s not given us any formal letter, yet. He says he requires the flat for his daughter. But we know that it is not the real reason,” says Fatos.

Fatos and Murat come from Malatya, located in Eastern Turkey.

The couple moved to Tarlabaşı soon after their marriage, 11 years ago, propelled, in part, by Murat’s job loss at a local sugar factory there – his boss firing him for taking “too many” days off for his honeymoon.
Both come from large families: Fatos, from a family of six siblings: three brothers, two of whom reside in France, and two sisters, and Murat, from a family of three: two brothers and one sister.

The family currently pays a rent of 300TL (about €119). However, given that the apartments above theirs have been rented out at 800TL (about €317), the landlord would probably acquiesce if they agreed to increase the rental to match the figure. Except, that with a salary of 900TL (about €357), the Alabalik family simply cannot afford it!

Situated in the European side of Istanbul, Tarlabaşı was once home to Greek and Armenian artisans, at the turn of the 20th century. That was before a combination of a bizarre ethnic swap with Muslims living in Greece in 1923, followed nearly two decades later by an ill-conceived wealth tax on non-Muslims – many of whom lived in Tarlabaşı – resulted in minorities fleeing to more secure pastures in other countries.

The vacated houses came in handy for all sorts of migrants: those from rural Turkey, displaced Kurds from the civil war in the 1990s, the Romas (traditionally called gypsies) in the 1970s, as well as miscellaneous squatters.

A majority of these migrants, like Fatos and Murat, were drawn to Istanbul for better employment opportunities for themselves and quality education for their children. Another ‘push-factor’ of course has been Tarlabaşı’s affordable housing, often making it the first stop – and in several cases, a permanent stop – for these migrants and refugees.

The area is occupied mainly by low income earners, working in the unorganised sector, as unlicensed garbage collectors, domestic help, or waiters for the better off. Many just scrape past the minimum wage of 887TL (about €340).

Murat concedes that the gentrification will eventually cleanse the area of its dereliction and seediness, but adds that the same could have been achieved through a genuine renewal programme that sought to restore – rather than redevelop – the locality to its earlier glory.

The Albaliks’ apartment, though small, is well maintained and tidy – in stark contrast to some of the rubble-choked streets outside, remnants of buildings demolished. “We are happy here,” states Murat, who would rather not move anywhere else, even if he sometimes misses his home village, Malatya, in eastern Turkey.

Their three children were born and have grown up in the neighbourhood: “They belong here. Tarlabaşı is their home and it would be difficult for them if we have to move anywhere else now. They have their old school and all their best friends here,” says Fatos.

Murat, who has no formal qualifications, works in a tea-house. He slogs seven days a week, ten hours a day, with no employee benefits such as paid holidays or pensions, typical for workers in his country’s unorganized sector.

“I have to work every day, for my family, for my daughters. This is my life, and one day, when I will be too old, they will take care of me,”

Adding to their woes – lack of apartment space and straitened finances – is the presence of Sedat, who moved in with them three months ago. Employed as a bartender at a club, he quit following the death of his boss and friend, who was shot by unknown assailants. The young man, still in shock over his friend’s assassination, has started exhibiting symptoms of depression. He largely spends the day sleeping or sometimes helping out Fatos, while from evening till dawn, he hangs around with his friends at the local club.

Yagmur, the calmest of the trio, intends to choose a profession from one among the trio of teaching, singing or fashion designing. Hazel, her co-conspirator in everything, emulates her older sister and is ever ready to do her bidding. Gizel, meanwhile, is a bundle of energy, and is more than aware of her star power as the family’s youngest.

And what if they have to vacate their apartment and move back to Malatya? What will they do back there? What about the education opportunities for the girls?

Murat, who’s joined by his wife and daughters in their living room, smiles. “Maybe, I’ll get into apricot farming,” he quips, even as the thud of another fallen wall of a house resounds in the locality.



Reportage realized in May 2013.

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