Balat street-Mary D'AmbrosioBanners demanding “don’t touch my house” have given way to “for sale” signs, as residents of this onetime elegant Jewish quarter along the Golden Horn look for ways to profit from the government’s next urban transformation scheme.

To the fury of local preservationists, Çalik Holdings, a construction company run by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son in law Berat Albayrak, has been awarded a contract to develop the Balat-Fener-Avansary corridor, formerly home to ethnic Greeks, Armenians and Jews. If the razing of Tarlabaşi (which Çalik likewise controls) is any guide, residents can expect a gut renovation, and the replacement of historical houses with hotels, luxury condos and shopping malls.

That vision clashes with a $10 million UNESCO-backed project meant to preserve part of Balat’s history, by restoring 95 houses, and establishing a cultural center. Istanbul’s Jewish community two decades ago restored the famous Ahrida synagogue, Istanbul’s oldest, to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet development is already rushing in, in the form of B&Bs, real estate agencies and cafes selling $3 glasses of fresh-squeezed juice. We came across a shoot for a Turk Telecom commercial, which starred an actor who had grown up in Balat. The locals were lining up for his autograph. 

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

As the wave of gentrification marches on, real estate speculation are profoundly transforming this historic neighborhood. Located on the west bank of the Golden Horn, Balat boasts a panoramic view of Istanbul.


“I worked for Istanbul financial bureau, but now I cannot afford a house to live in,” says Ahmet Uslu, 40. Claiming himself “homeless,” Ahmet now lives in a rental house in Balat. Like many retired seniors here, he is unable to own a house due to increasing house price.


According to the “Emerging Trends in Real Estate Europe 2012 Report” published by Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers, Istanbul ranks first in terms of “Development Prospects” and “Existing Property Performance” in Europe.


On a 400-meter street sit five real estate agencies. “House price ranges from $200,000 to $2,000,000 dollars here,” says realtor Osman Kadıoğlu as he lights a cigarette. Below, a crew shoot a TV commercial for Turkcell. An actor sits in a Porsche convertible.


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.


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


Idris Bakur (27) is another example of people seeking business opportunities in Balat. “It will take more than one year to profit from the shop, but I’m not really concerned about that,” he says, a Kurdish man who comes from Eastern Turkey and started an olive oil products shop a month ago.


Tourists pass by Idris’ shop. He says that most of them come from Greece and France.


But not everyone in the neighborhood is happy to see gentrification in Balat. “This neighborhood used to be friendly, but as our old neighbors moved out, everything has changed,” sighs Sabri Bilir (56), the former mayor of Balat. He runs a grocery store that was opened by his great grandfather 110 years ago.


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


Bekir Altıntepe (47) is also optimistic about the change. He says that flourishing tourism has brought many customers to his 100-year-old bakery.


When asked about his opinion on rising house price, Bekir is not sure whether he should sell the bakery for a considerable amount of money.


“Sadly, urban gentrification is unpreventable,” says Hüseyin Kaptan, the former director of the Istanbul Metropolitan Planning Center. He compares Istanbul to Paris and Rome, suggesting that gentrification is a period that almost all cities face.