Cooking and Commiserating in the Last Days of the Real Tarlabaşı

As an urban renewal project obliterates the last vestiges of the neighborhood, some remaining residents meet weekly for a consoling community supper.

BY BREANNE BREZINSKI (story and photos) and JACQUELINE DI BARTOLOMEO (video)

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At Mutfak (kitchen), people of all ages meet to chop vegetables, squeeze lemons for salad dressing and stir industrial-sized pots of beans. Outside, a young boy uses a broom that dwarfs him to clean the trash off of the steps that descend to the kitchen.  A young girl walks down the street, offering sweet doughy treats to anyone who wants some.

As the sun drops in the early evening sky, kitchen organizers Cado Ö. and Eddie F., who asked that their last names not be used, take a break from preparing food to sit on the side of the road and roll cigarettes.

“It is not about cooking for migrants; it’s an open kitchen,” said Cado, explaining their project. “The solidarity is the basic politic, anti-discrimination and anti-resistance politics.”

This neighborhood, with its winding cobblestone streets filled with garbage, cigarette butts and forgotten items, will soon be extinct. The colorful laundry that hangs between decrepit buildings; the children skipping rope and playing ball; the women gathering to hand-sew mattresses; the middle-aged men in the teahouses, discussing the latest events, will all disappear, as documented in this short, “Tarlabaşı: Tearing down history”, by Jacqueline Di Bartolomeo:

 

A government redevelopment project seeks to replace the often century-old buildings with sleek, modern condos. Since Tarlabaşı was named an urban renewal area in 2006, hundreds of families have left.

Through broken windows and doorless frames, families band together, much the way the remaining buildings lean on one another for support.

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Many of the buildings in Tarlabaşı have been abandoned by their original owners. Some are being occupied by squatters.

Cado moved to Istanbul from the nearby town of Izmit 13 years ago, and to Tarlabasi six years ago. He also works as a youth coordinator for migrant orphans.

Eddie F. came here from Nigeria several years ago, and spends his time either at Mutfak or working with neighborhood children, helping them to develop their dreams, wishes and talents. He also runs a small textile trading business and shop.

This “migrant solidarity,” as Cado likes to call it, has been present in Tarlabaşı through Mutfak for 18 months. Mutfak also offers English and Turkish lessons to the neighborhood children.

Though riddled with poverty, crime and drugs, Tarlabasi tries to find a way to retain a sense of community.

According to Cem Tuzun, a member of the board of the neighborhood association in nearby Galata, this is the latest phase of gentrifying the area, which started with the construction of Tarlabaşı Boulevard in the 1980s.

“It’s a gentrification project. It’s not a real conservation project,” Tuzun said. “They never conserved even one building. They destroy all the buildings; they will build new concrete buildings.” The developers didn’t preserve lifestyles, either, he said – those of the small shoe repairmen or tailors or grocery shops.

Now, the streets closest to Tarlabaşı Boulevard are deserted, home only to crumbling houses, construction zones, piles of rubble and stray cats.

Mutfak organizers are determined to not let the project dim the beauty of the troubled neighborhood.

“We love our neighborhood, and they want to kick [us] out,” Cado complained. “They want to change the classes here. They want to earn money. So we try to do our best, we try to keep this beauty in spite of it all.”

The weekly suppers help tea house owner Ercan Yilmiz stay in touch with his neighbors. Yilmaz and his family have lived in Tarlabaşı for more than 10 years.  He’s seen what a redevelopment project can do to a family.

“When people leave this place they are used to living in, it causes disappointment for these people. If you are used to living in a place for a 100 years, to leave that place is a scandal,” he said.

He suspects that shop owners like him could have trouble keeping their property, if the government wants to take it.

“Although you have all the documents that show that this shop is yours, in a night the government can come and tell you to leave and sell the shop,” he argued.

Instead of using the gentrification project to improve the lives of the people who live there, the project will bring in wealthier residents, said  Yilmaz, who believes his Kurdish ethnicity will prevent him from benefiting.

“They will see that I am Kurdish and come from the east, so they will kick me out because I am not from the prime minister’s city, Rize,” he claimed.

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Tarlabasi business owner Ercan Yilmiz said that he is weary about the future of the neighborhood and of his teahouse.

Architecturally,  the gentrification project is destroying more than just a neighborhood: it’s  also destroying a part of Istanbul’s heritage, Tuzun said.

“All of [the] buildings in Tarlabaşı were art nouveau style, art deco, there were some art deco elements on the facades, and they completed destroyed all the buildings,” he said.

“Once the project is completed, the area will become a sort of area for tourists. But because of all of the changes, the tourists will not see the real Tarlabaşı.”

 

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