Architects in 2009 described Istanbul’s downtown neighborhood of Tarlabaşı as an unsafe place for children -- a district whose destruction and reconstruction would be in the interest of its residents.
Few dispute that Tarlabaşı is run-down and that many of its residents live below the poverty line. But the congested neighborhood is also one of the few remaining places in the city center where there is affordable housing for the urban poor.
Despite its appearances, Tarlabaşı is a vibrant community comprising not only multiple ethnic groups -- Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Roma, Kurds and African migrants – but, also a diverse array of social groups, ranging from devout believers to transgender sex workers.
That mix of residents allows for social interactions that would be considered impossible elsewhere. For instance, an informal arrangement enables workers from a transgender brothel drink tea, play cards and have lunch at a next-door café that caters to Kurdish working men. Brothel customers, however, are unwelcome.
This reality is not something discussed in Turkish media. Instead, media outlets tend to emphasize the district’s reputation as a hotbed of crime, a place of danger for anyone who is a non-resident.
Residents themselves point out that Tarlabaşı is not a utopia where tolerance is the norm. Many say they simply have no other place they can go, and thus must form uneasy alliances with their neighbors. “We have no other option but to rent in Tarlabaşı” said one transgender sex-worker. “Normal landlords won’t rent to transsexuals and prostitutes; anywhere else and we’d be killed,” she said.
The prospect of having to relocate is something residents can not ignore any longer. Evictions have started, provoking complaints from international rights organizations. In a report issued in mid-July, Amnesty International underlined that “dozens of families in the Tarlabaşı district are facing forced eviction. … They have been subjected to intimidation and threats by the local Beyoğlu municipality and law enforcement officials.”
Amnesty demanded a halt to the evictions and an investigation into the eviction procedures. City officials rejected “Amnesty’s findings.”
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.