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The Past, Present, and Future of Beyoğlu

by Kyle Olson, ANAMED Post-Doctoral Fellow (2021–2022)

When I moved to Istanbul in September to begin my residency as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at ANAMED, I could not have imagined the resonances that would emerge between my daily life and my academic research on the history of the relationship between heritage, tourism, and development. It began somewhat unintentionally, but before long, I found myself immersed in a conversation about the past, present, and future of Beyoğlu.

As I was first getting to know the neighborhoods surrounding the Merkez Han, I found myself repeatedly having the same conversation: “Are you a tourist?” To which I would reply, “No, I’m working here for a year.” The follow-up question inevitably was “How do you like living in Beyoğlu?” My answer: “I like it so far, it’s lively, and there’s so much to do and see.” The response, in time, became almost predictable. “Ah, well, you know, it used to be better.” (Or different, more interesting, more fun, but all with the same implication—”things have changed.”)

This refrain became my entry point to both the recent history of the area and local concerns over its current prospects. I found it puzzling—Beyoğlu seemed quite vibrant to my untrained eyes. “What changed?” I would ask. Answers varied, but a few key interconnected themes stood out. People pointed to rising rents, the gradual departure of the cultural community that once made the place special, the privatization and redevelopment of significant public spaces, and a skyrocketing number of tourists and businesses that cater to them.

The latter two issues are especially salient, as Turkey has long pursued a strategy of promoting tourism to stimulate economic development, using its rich cultural heritage as a draw for visitors and related infrastructure spending as a boon for its construction industry. In the early years of such programs, considerable investment was directed to both the creation of new attractions and improving the desirability of already-existing destinations through the restoration of ancient monuments, the building of museums and hotels, and the hosting of cultural festivals. A similar development strategy can be observed in today’s Beyoğlu, but this version involves a grander scale of financial outlay and a revitalization agenda that carries significantly higher symbolic and practical stakes for local residents.

Indeed, the question of how Beyoğlu’s heritage is being used and abused by policymakers and developers is a major topic of discussion in the district’s cultural life, seen for example, in panels and public forums, on social media, in newsletters, in local periodicals, on the radio, in documentaries, in situationist projects, and in participatory mapping projects. Among other things, what this discourse shows is that while Beyoğlu has always been changing—with nostalgia like the kind I encountered when I arrived being a frequent response to such changes—there is nevertheless good reason to be concerned about the effects that tourism-led development policies are likely have on the life of the district.

The Beyoğlu municipality, comprising forty-five distinct neighborhoods, is centrally located within the broader metropolis, sitting across the Golden Horn from the Historical Peninsula on the European side of İstanbul. Beyoğlu features a unique social and cultural environment, deriving from its long history as the home of the city’s non-Muslim minorities and foreign population, its Belle Époque and Republican-era architectural heritage, and its open street culture. For some, the district has symbolic significance as an emblem of secularism, freedom of thought and modern lifestyles, as a cultural hub and central gathering place, and as the city’s major venue of urban political action, street protest, and labor demonstrations. For others, the district has served for decades as a place of refuge and shelter for newly arrived migrants from Anatolia and abroad, as well as for an ever-shifting constellation of marginalized groups. For yet others, it was a place where tradesmen’s culture had flourished, and small businesses thrived, despite the many economic and political upheavals of the 20th century.

In the past ten years, Beyoğlu has been experiencing a rapid phase of “urban renewal” linked to its increasing touristification, especially in areas adjacent to Istiklal Street, the Galata Tower, along Boğazkesen Street, and in the waterfront neighborhood of Karaköy. The primary agent driving these changes appears to be “profit-led initiatives of private developers,” supported by certain factions of both national and local government. Such initiatives in Beyoğlu include the demolition and “restoration” of notable historical buildings and public spaces such as Narmanlı Han, Emek Cinema, and the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi as well as new mega-development projects such as the luxury housing and entertainment center at the historic Haliç Shipyard and Galataport, a massive cruise-ship dock, mall, and the site of the new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

These high-profile restoration and redevelopment projects have become integral aspects of Istanbul’s “city-branding,” that is, a tourism marketing strategy involving the creation of “spectacular architectural icons” and “scripted places” that generate symbolic capital or otherwise “deliberately marked places of distinction” and that lend urban spaces a “coolness” that can be exploited for further commercialization (Eder and Oz 2014: 284–85). These developments can thus be seen to function as an enclosure of the commons that turns the culture and heritage of Beyoğlu into commodities for the consumption of visitors.


Photo: Galata Tower, image credit Nurcan Baysal

These development projects dissonantly echo those of the mid-twentieth century planners I am studying in my academic research. In those days, heritage sites were conceived of as unique cultural assets whose primary value was educational, aesthetic, and/or historical. Their commercial function was to attract visitors and thereby direct and/or augment flows of money to underdeveloped areas. Today, heritage sites have become assets in a more directly financialized sense. Their commercial value has become primary, while their heritage value recedes into the background. In other words, the spatial and practical distinctions between the heritage site, its gift-shop, and the nearby hotel have been collapsed, creating possibilities for the extraction of monopoly rents in the urban core. In further contrast to the heritage sites developed as tourist attractions in previous decades—which had most often ceased to be in use hundreds if not thousands of years prior—the redevelopment of Beyoğlu’s heritage sites as shopping and entertainment centers has directly displaced businesses and residents, contributing to a reshaping of the district’s social geography, and giving rise to the “things have changed” refrain.

The commodification and commercialization of Beyoğlu’s heritage and public space has unsurprisingly triggered intense debates. For example, during my first week in Istanbul, a social media campaign titled #beyoglunugerialiyoruz (#we’retakingbackbeyoglu) launched on Instagram, claiming that unless displaced citizens take action by “returning” to the area, Beyoğlu will well and truly be “finished.” Together, the campaign’s manifesto and its critics clarified for me what is at stake when some groups claim that “Taksim is gone” or that “Beyoğlu used to be better.”

The #beyoglunugerialiyoruz campaign laments the disappearance of Beyoğlu’s secular cultural spaces, especially those associated with nightlife and the arts. They point particularly to Narmanlı Han and Emek Cinema, both formerly significant cultural gathering spaces that have been privatized and “restored” in recent years, the former now filled with multinational coffee shop chains and the latter a shopping mall. The authors of the manifesto clearly place the blame for these losses on the policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and calls for a social movement to re-occupy Beyoğlu’s spaces of memory and reclaim the district.

It has been argued—rightly, if somewhat hyperbolically—that the campaign’s slogan serves as a culture war dog-whistle, the last cry of so-called “White Turks” bemoaning the loss of their most “sacred playground” in Asmalı Mescit, Pera, Galatasaray, and Taksim, which has been infiltrated by tourist traps, government-friendly bars, teahouses, and associations. Indeed, as both Pınar Üzeltüzenci and Kenan Sharpe discuss in their essays on the subject, there is darker side of the “Beyoğlu is dead” discourse. Firstly, whether intentionally or not, it abets a certain anti-Arabism against both destitute Syrian refugees and wealthy Gulf-state tourists alike, who are conspiratorially seen by some as being a wedge used to further drive out the “sinful” bohemian culture of Beyoğlu so detested by AKP. Secondly, it erases the longer history of dispossession in the neighborhood—that is, the population exchanges of the 1920s and the pogroms of the 1950s that led to the mass exodus of the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish populations who had inhabited Beyoğlu for centuries—that created the conditions for the district to become the center of secular Republican Turkish culture in the first place.

What I would add to their commentary is that the nostalgia for Beyoğlu of times gone by is not limited only to hipsters who have decamped to Kadıköy or the middle-class secular residents of the neighborhoods astride Istiklal Street, nor is it a particularly unique feature of the present. According to restoration architect Seda Özen Bilgili, “[in] every period, everyone is looking for their old Beyoğlu. In fact, this is a dissatisfaction that has been experienced for many years.” Indeed, the statement “this place used to be better” can also be found in different forms in other areas of Beyoğlu, for example, among the tradesmen of Yüksekkaldırım and the residents of Tophane, who have also been confronting commercialization, gentrification, and displacement in their neighborhoods as well.

Regardless of which Beyoğlu different groups might be nostalgic for, however, there does seem to be consensus regarding what the most consequential issue facing the district is. The biggest problem is not adjudicating the competing claims of who among the increasingly polarized public can rightfully claim it as “their” space, but whether Beyoğlu will remain to be a public space at all in the face of the top-down policies of tourism-led urban redevelopment that seek to convert “Old” Beyoğlu into a cash-cow for private investors. Given the current political environment, in which major protests and resistance movements that might contest this state of affairs do not seem possible—like those against the destruction of Emek Cinema or even the Gezi Uprising, both an important part of recent struggles over heritage, public space, and privatized development in Beyoğlu—this is no small concern.

My first month living on Istiklal was marked by episodes of redevelopment, both minor and consequential, that shaped my understanding of the changes underway in Beyoğlu. During the second week of my residency at ANAMED, for example, a beloved bookstore on Istiklal just a few blocks down from the Merkez Han, Denizler Kitapevi, announced it would be relocating to a new storefront in Galata. It was replaced barely a week laterby a low-end jewelry and trinket store primarily oriented toward tourists. More significantly, on Republic Day (October 29th) a trio of openings—Galataport, the newly renovated Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, and the Beyoğlu Culture Road project—promised to both bring a renewed stream of tourists to Beyoğlu and revitalize its cultural life. A brief survey of the critical reception of these projects reveals widespread concern about their potential long-term effects.


Photo: Galataport, source

The massive Galataport development—a cruise-ship landing built overtop the historic Salıpazarı Port along the Bosphorus coast—finally opened after two decades of planning and construction. Galataport is designed to be a center for culture, art, shopping, and gastronomy, and most importantly, to attract more tourists to Beyoğlu. As part of the construction activities, numerous historical structures were either torn down or obscured, including the Karaköy Passenger Hall and the Paket Postahanesi. Some have been reconstructed and made to appear as if the buildings had been merely renovated, rather than completely rebuilt. The project has been criticized from many fronts, from its lack of transparency and participation in the planning process, the controversies over the bidding process, to the environmental threats that docking cruise-ships in the area poses. Most controversially, the project has entailed the privatization and enclosure of 1.2 km of coastline, rendering formerly public and small-scale commercial space the exclusive domain of real-estate developers and their clients.

The rebuilt Atatürk Kültür Merkezi (AKM) opened to much fanfare and press coverage. The original AKM, built in the 1960s, was one of the most important cultural landmarks of the Republican era, an iconic performance space that hosted concerts, plays, and opera. The original structure was closed in 2008, remained empty for a decade before being demolished in 2018. Since then, coincident with the construction of the Taksim Mosque directly across the square, the original building has been replaced with a new structure whose façade was designed to replicate that of the original, but with an all-new interior. The opening has been welcomed in some quarters, the return of a significant cultural space to the geography of the city. Others have been less enthusiastic, however, concerned that the texture of the building’s public space and the potent symbolism of the original structure have both been fundamentally altered.

Galataport and the new AKM are linked together by not just having officially opened on the same day and by sharing a common “restoration” technique, that is, demolition followed by the construction of new buildings that outwardly resemble the old—termed “façadism” by local architectural historian Luca Orlandi or “zombie buildings” by Nazım Dikbaş. They are also connected by being the beginning and ending points of a new heritage-oriented pedestrian tour path called the Beyoğlu Culture Road.

Inaugurated with a two-week festival, the Beyoğlu Culture Road is a planned program of cultural activities designed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism with Governorship of Istanbul to “ present Beyoğlu with a new face and narrative.” It follows a route that leads from Galataport up to the Galata Tower and further along and around Istiklal Street ultimately to Taksim Square and AKM. The festival involved the participation of over one-thousand artists in 40 exhibitions, 75 concerts, 25 art and literature talks, and video-mapping shows at 64 locations. The focal points of the walking route include the Galata Mevlevi Museum, the Tarık Zafer Tunaya Cultural Center, the Narmanlı Han, the Mehmet Akif Ersoy Memorial House in Mısır Apartment, the Grand Pera AVM (formerly the Cercle d’Orient Building, housing Emek Cinema), Atlas Passage, and the Istanbul Cinema Museum.

The Beyoğlu Culture Road and its inaugural festival have come in for heavy critique from the city’s architects, preservationists, and cultural commenters. For starters, the cultural activities along the path tend to involve buildings mostly owned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and its affiliated institutions, as well as cultural properties that have controversially been transferred from the municipality or private owners to religious endowments in recent years.

The artist and writer Nazım Dikbaş published a scathing review of the festival, describing it as a state-planned “attack” on Beyoğlu that erases the past, complicates the present, and obscures the future, all for the enrichment of developers at the expense of the district’s populace. According to Dikbaş, in addition to downplaying the significance of social movement struggles over several of the buildings along the route, the festival itself was a haphazardly planned boondoggle. Some of the “participating” artists did not even know that their work would be featured, while other artists who attempted to pull out of the program found their names not removed from fliers, signage, and other promotional materials. According to Dikbaş, the sloppiness of the festival—with its maps and signage full of errors, thus failing to fulfill the requirements of even an ordinary walking tour—ultimately both undermines its concept as a pedestrian exhibition and gives lie to its claim to be about celebrating the cultural life of Beyoğlu. (It should also be noted that the direction of the tour runs opposite to local perception of how Beyoğlu should be toured on foot; the natural progression, as noted by Seda Özen Bilgili, is from Taksim to Galata, not the other way around. I would add that this is also what is recommended by the eminent John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd in their classic pedestrian-tour guidebook “Strolling Through Istanbul.”)

Hence, while the Festival purports to celebrate the rich history and culture of Beyoğlu, its planning and execution suggests otherwise. Dikbaş argues that the Culture Road Festival serves little purpose other than to obscure the most recent, relevant, and ongoing events, namely the project to commodify Beyoğlu’s history through the destruction of its urban fabric and the replacement of its sites of social memory with commercial real-estate designed for rent-extraction. Or as city planner Ahmet Onur Altun put it, the festival is part and parcel of a plan to bring about “Beyoğlu’s transformation from a culture and art center to a shopping center.”

Ultimately, the Beyoğlu Culture Road has not been received as a commemoration of the neighborhood’s cultural and artistic legacies, but rather as a celebration of the large-scale privatization campaign and of the molding of the heritage of Beyoğlu to fit the ruling development ideology. Especially considering which venues have been selected as key focal points of the festival, meant to emphasize Beyoğlu’s cultural identity and aimed at its revitalization, what critics have seen instead is an erasure of memory and an evacuation of local culture. A visitor could conceivably attend the festival, visit each of these buildings, and leave with no sense of the conflict that has played out over the “restoration” of such properties nor any inkling of the violence done to the people of Beyoğlu as the district’s gathering spaces have been privatized. Furthermore, in presenting a sanitized version of Beyoğlu’s recent history back to the district’s residents, according to Dr. Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, “it seems that it is hoped that we have forgotten about these interventions.”


Photo: Emek Protests, 2013. Courtesy of Selcen Coşkun

Critics of the recent development projects appear united in the view that the district’s prized historic character and the communities that thrived here cannot be revitalized with top-down plans. There are signs of hope, however. First of all, plenty of people still live in Beyoğlu, still come to spend time in Beyoğlu, and still care about Beyoğlu—otherwise, how would I have ever become aware of these issues? Secondly, the commentary surveyed above reflects a keen awareness among the concerned professionals who may actually have some ability to do something about this situation, especially the local leadership of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, who have been active both in the press and in the courts. And last but not least, in recent years the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality has adopted a more participatory approach to planning the development of Beyoğlu, which will ideally design strategies to help make the district a more livable place for the public, while still preserving its urban memory and cultural distinctiveness.

But, given the currently hegemonic development strategy in Turkey, there is a legitimate question as to how effective such planning can ultimately be in the face of the drive to make Beyoğlu an appealing tourist destination, exemplified in projects described above. After all, tourism is big business in Turkey, and has been for a long time. Today, the sector is an integral part of the national economy, with redoubled importance given Turkey’s ongoing currency crisis and need for foreign exchange.

What can be seen here in Beyoğlu reflects Sharon Zukin’s insights about cultural strategies of redevelopment more generally. Such strategies are by nature complex, embodying different vectors of change and requiring the reconciliation of different and often opposing desires. What such strategies share is the objective to create a cultural space that connects tourism, consumption, and lifestyle. While they purport to appreciate the heritage of a place, they just as often serve to push sites of memory further into the past. In the process of enlisting heritage places into a marketable “image of local identity,” cultural redevelopment strategies tend to obscure conflicts over the meaning of history, intentionally or otherwise. Such heritage sites, regardless of bloody pasts or tense presents, become symbols divorced from their context, rendering them as little more than marketing tools or pass-throughs for customers in between rounds of shopping and snacks. The paradox of course for cities like Istanbul—and districts like Beyoğlu—is that to the extent that planners and developers emphasize the construction of amenities and the commodification of history to attract tourists, as Neil Smith pointed out long ago, they risk diluting the cultural distinctiveness that had made them attractive in the first place.

Perhaps in the future, the very same people who have told me that this place used to be better will look back on the present moment as downright rosy in comparison to what may yet lie beyond the horizon. Perhaps a more participatory and bottom-up version of urban planning will succeed in meeting the needs of Beyoğlu’s residents and help find a way for investors to develop the district in ways that go beyond increasing its attractiveness for tourists. As to whether Beyoğlu’s cultural life can survive the current drive to commodify and whitewash the neighborhood’s history simultaneously, the current outlook among heritage professionals, architects, and cultural commentators is relatively grim. But, as several friends have recently pointed out, “Look around, we’re still coming here.” For now, from what I can see, they are not wrong. But Beyoğlu was once more than a place to visit, it was a place to live as well. For some, it still is. Whether the future holds the same remains to be seen.