Scheming and Speculation on the Golden Horn

As a real estate boom in Balat drives land prices into the sky, longtime residents wonder: should they sell up?

A photo essay by ZIHAO YANG
With additional reporting by Ariam Frezghi and Una Chow

Real estate speculation is profoundly transforming the historic neighborhood of Balat. Located on the west bank of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood boasts a panoramic view of Istanbul.

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“I worked for Istanbul financial bureau, but now I cannot afford a house to live in,” said Ahmet Uslu, 40. Calling himself “homeless,” Ahmet now lives in a rented house in Balat. Like many retired senior citizens, he can’t afford to buy a house here, as prices are shooting up.

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According to “Emerging Trends in Real Estate Europe 2012,” a report published by the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers, Istanbul ranks first in Europe in terms of  development prospects, and existing property performance.

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Real estate agencies are popping up everywhere: on one main street a few blocks long, we counted five. “House price ranges from $200,000 to $2,000,000 dollars here,” said realtor Osman Kadıoğlu, as he lit a cigarette. Below, a crew shoots a TV commercial for the phone company Turkcell. An actor sits in a Porsche convertible.

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As rich people and artists move in, some people see potential business opportunities in this old district. Eva is one of them. She works for Derviş Baba Kahvehanesi, a cozy café that opened last year.

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“That camera was sent here from Russia, and that postcard is from France,” Eva said, as she proudly pointed to souvenirs hanging from the ceiling. She suggested that the café has already generated profit, thanks to the booming economy and tourism.

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Idris Bakur,27, also sought a business opportunity in Balat. “It will take more than one year to profit from the shop, but I’m not really concerned about that,” he said. Bakur is Kurdish, from Eastern Turkey. He opened an olive oil products shop a month ago.

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Tourists pass by Idris’ shop. He said that most of of his customers come from Greece and France.

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But not everyone in the neighborhood is happy to see gentrification arrive. “This neighborhood used to be friendly, but as our old neighbors moved out, everything has changed,” sighed Sabri Bilir, 56, Balat’s former muhtar, or headman. He runs a grocery store opened by his great grandfather 110 years ago.

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Bilir may bemoan these changes, but others, including his wife, welcome the influx of money: “If someone is willing to buy this place with enough money, we don’t mind leaving here,” she said. According to Yani Sarıoğlu, 87, an antique shop owner who has lived in Balat for more than 30 years, many locals have put their houses up for sale, in hopes of earning more money.

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Bekir Altıntepe, 47, is also optimistic about the change. He said flourishing tourism had brought many customers to his 100-year-old bakery.

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Bekir said he was on the fence about whether to put the bakery on the market.

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Comparing Istanbul to Paris and Rome, Hüseyin Kaptan, the former director of the Istanbul Metropolitan Planning Center, pointed out that all cities gentrify over time. “Sadly,” he said, “urban gentrification is unpreventable.”

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