Turkey: Istanbul Gentrification Opens Second Front in Culture War

In Turkey these days the culture war raging between secularists and moderate Islamists grabs much of the attention. But in Istanbul, there is a second front to the culture war, one that centers on the issue of gentrification.

A focal point of Istanbul’s gentrification movement is the traditional Tophane District. The neighborhood has long been known for its conservative flavor; women are more traditionally dressed, mosque attendance is high, and despite being within five minutes’ walk of Istanbul’s main party areas, there are very few bars serving alcohol.

But at the same time, the signs of creeping change are everywhere. Most conspicuously, an increasing number of art galleries have opened in the district over the last five years -- drawn to the area by relatively cheap rents and the close proximity of the new Istanbul Modern and a converted cannonball factory, now itself a gallery space. There is a stark contrast aesthetically and financially between these new galleries and the tea-houses and shops where old-timers congregate.

Social tension in the neighborhood has been high since a riot in late September, when attendees at six simultaneous gallery openings were attacked by local residents wielding pepper spray bottles and assorted brickbats. The brawling left five individuals hospitalized and ignited a round of soul-searching that reached into the top levels of government.

Locals justified their aggressive actions by saying that the gallery crowds were disrespectful of neighborhood sensitivities, in particular drinking alcohol in the open. The secularist press, meanwhile, derided the locals’ behavior, with one newspaper running a headline: “Forest Law in the City of Culture.” Gallery owners also recounted tales of intimidation and receiving threats to leave the neighborhood, or face consequences.

Although on the surface things seem relatively calm these days, locals remain nervous about the future.

“Everything is fine here at the moment, we’re at ease. But three or four years from now, the peace we now have will be gone,” said Mehmet as he sat in a local tea-house. “They want to turn this into an area of bars and nightclubs.”

When asked to define who “they” were, Mehmet and those sitting around him answered: “Rich people, capitalists, intellectuals, the so-called high-society.”

“While we don’t discriminate against anybody, these rich people make a distinction between rich and poor,” Mehmet added. “I wear different clothes than them, my style is very different. I feel like a stranger around them, I am not at ease.”

Burayde, a young man in traditional Muslim clerical dress touched on the same theme, suggesting that the gentrifiers’ intolerance was a major sore point. “People laugh at me when I walk down the street, though I was born and raised here. Just a month and a half ago, a man insulted me and my sisters because of our clothes. That man had moved here from Malatya. He was rich and had lived a more exclusive life, but then he comes and treats the people that have always lived here badly. These are the experiences that we [long-time residents] have.”

It remains to be seen whether locals and gentrifiers will be able to engage in a dialogue that can help cushion the shock of change. What seems a sure bet, however, is that the economic forces at work will continually alter the terms of the debate. Although the gentrification process is far from complete in Tophane, rents and property values are already rising at rapid rates. Skyrocketing prices seem to be exerting pressure both on locals and gallery owners alike.

“Five years ago, they wanted 350,000 TL (about $224,000) for this house. Now it sells at 4,000,000 TL, ($2.56 million),” said one local resident.

Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey: Istanbul Gentrification Opens Second Front in Culture War

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