Gentrification Hits Istanbul, One Neighborhood at a Time

BY AYESHA RIZVI (story)  and JENNIE BUTLER (video)

Situated on a cobblestone-lain hill north of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood of Galata dates back to a time when merchant trading dominated the Bosphorus. Today, Galata is home to an assortment of European-style boutiques, with hues of red, orange and other brightly colored fashions that beckon tourists. Other shops sell vibrant trinkets with elaborate patterns meant to decorate homes with a taste of the city’s unique beauty.

Juice vendors tempt visitors with delectable tropical fruits, ready to squeeze for freshly chilled juices. The smell of grilled lamb kebabs, garlic and peppers lingers around the neighborhood attracting tourists who want to sample authentic, albeit overpriced, Turkish cuisine. From the top of the 14th century Galata Towers, visitors encounter magnificent views of the city and the deep blue Bosphorus strait.

Galata1Souvenirs exhibitng key Istanbul landmarks hang alongside shops in Galata

Most of these retail spaces represent most of the new development in Galata. Yet, while enticing foreigners, much of this transformation is drawing the ire of long-time residents who worry that this fast paced development will eliminate the character and identity that make it a unique community. Some of these concerns are explored in the short documentary, “Istanbul Stories: Galata” by Jennie Butler:

“This is not conserving history, this is not respecting culture, this is just fucking modernization,” said Cem Tuzun, a Galata resident and board member of the Galata Association.

Recent events show that Gezi Park around Taksim Square is the current flashpoint that makes modernization plans in Istanbul most obvious, but Galata is the next target, activists say. It has visibly grown into a tourist hub over the last 10 years. Streets that were once filled with abandoned and run-down homes are now stocked with commercial shops that sell expensive souvenirs and solely serve tourists as they walk about exploring the neighborhood.

Locals fall victim to rising rent prices, escalating noise from the fast developing nightlife in the area as new cafes and bars emerge close to residential apartments and houses. Residents of Galata have begun to feel burdened with this change and unwillingly move to other areas in Istanbul cutting ties with the community they and their ancestors grew up in.

“Our streets are so narrow and some restaurants and cafes put their chairs outside and residents complain about that,” said Hayriye Yıldız, another longtime Galata resident and also the chairwoman of the Galata Association. “Residents don’t like that new cafes have now occupied the bottom portions of their apartment buildings.”

Established first in 1994, the Galata Association strives to help residents here solve daily neighborhood problems and works directly with the municipality to achieve suitable solutions that benefit the entire neighborhood. The socio-economic status of Galata residents is reasonably high but there are also some very poor people who live there.
“More than 7,000 people moved to other cities or other parts of Istanbul because of the urban development projects,” said Yıldız.

Galata’s distinct characteristics are defined by the fusion of different kinds of people. This was made apparent as an owner of a neighborhood printing press, Petro Dondoglu, a devout orthodox Christian, walked alongside his best friend, Burhan Alev, an Imam of a nearby Islamic mosque.

“We both used to work together for a book binding company and we’ve been friends for 40 years,” said Dondoglu. “Galata is my life, I was born here and have lived here ever since.”

Of the 17,000 Jews who are spread over Turkey, a significant number reside in Galata and have had a historical home there. Many Spanish Jews, who had been exiled from Spain, were welcomed by Sultans of the Ottoman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century.

“The historic value of Galata is not only about its buildings, it is also about its local people who have now been forced to leave because of high taxes and increasing rent,” said Tuzun. “The area has lost its true identity because of this.”

The Galata Port Project, a new project underway, is sparking a new debate. The terminal of the port is visually striking and aims to create an aesthetic and functional link between the land and the sea, complimenting the historic relationship Istanbul has had with the water around it. Aside from its functional use, the port will also be home to 5-star hotels, expensive shopping malls and other highrise buildings that will essentially modify Istanbul’s skyline.


Streets of Galata flourish with retail stores selling stylish clothing and accessories.

“Ever since (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan came, the government has started doing more and more projects like these for economic development, but as an architect I think, this is not good for the community,” said Murat Tabanloglu, a professor of architecture at Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar University in Istanbul. “Costs of living and housing has risen over the last couple of years.”

On the other hand, for Yildiz, the port project could be a positive addition to the neighborhood if done well, but she remains concerned about highrise buildings the port will bring to that area.

“I have beautiful views of the Bosphorus from my apartment window,” said Yıldız. “If they build these highrise buildings in front of my home, then I wont be able to enjoy these views and my apartment will feel cramped.”