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Urban Dynamics

Main entrance section of the original building of Or Ahayim Hastanesi, the Balat Jewish Hospital, Balat, Istanbul, 2013.  Inscriptions, extent and obliterated, on its facade give insight into realities of past and present-day Istanbul.  (Fuji X100) Click on image to enlarge.

Main entrance section of the original building of Or Ahayim Hastanesi, the Balat Jewish Hospital, Balat, Istanbul, 2011. Inscriptions — both extent and obliterated — on its facade give insight into realities of past and present-day Istanbul. (Fuji X100) Click on image to enlarge.

The Or Ahayim Jewish hospital in Balat was founded and built in the last decades of the 19th century.  Its construction and original endowment was funded by large donations from wealthy Istanbul Jewish families, as well as by masses of small coins placed into collection boxes by Istanbul’s far more numerous Jewish working poor.   The monumental former entrance way as shown above, built in 1898 to replace an earlier structure, was designed by Architect Gabriel Tedeschi who, if I am correct, was also the architect of the Ashkenazic Synagogue (built as the Austro-Hungarian Synagogue) near the Galata Tower on Yüksek Kaldιrιm in the Karakoy section of Istanbul.  Today, Or Ahayim complex comprises the only buildings in Balat still standing on the shore side of the Golden Horn coastal road, on what is now a park but was once the site of a shore-front slum.

A Shining Light

The Hebrew name “Or Ahayim” literally translates as “Light of Life” — and a true light of life the hospital has been and remains to be for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.  Originally founded as a dispensary for the Jewish poor, the hospital, still funded and administrated by the Jewish community of Turkey, now serves the almost completely Muslim population of Balat, a sign of the commitment of Istanbul Jews to the city in which they live and have been rooted since early-Ottoman times and, in the cases of those who can claim Romaniote origins, far longer.

Cautious Discretion or Imposed Anonymity?

In the face of realities of contemporary Istanbul, the identity and history of Or Ahayim, like those of many other “minority” institutions, seems discreetly obscured.  The “history” page of the hospital’s website never directly mentions the institution’s specifically Jewish identity but subtly suggests such by listing the characteristically Sephardic- (and, in one case, Ashkenazic-) Jewish family names of the original founders and donors, including, amongst others: Dalmediko, de Kastro, Gerson, Molho, Halfon, Levi, Kohen, and Grayver.  Some of the donors named held military titles, including one physician with the naval rank of Admiral, others held the honorific of “pasha.” My own favorite amongst the names listed is that of Yuda Levi Kebapçıoğlu — kebapçıoğlu meaning “son of the kabob vendor,” an honorific seemingly rooted in hard work and, in culinary terms, more to my own taste.  Likewise, the website mentions that the hospital housed refugees that arrived in Istanbul from Russia in the 1920s and Poland in the 1930s but similarly sidesteps any mentions of their ethnicities.

The facade of the hospital also displays a ambiguous blurring over of identity.  A very large Hebrew letter inscription in the central panel of the architrave at the apex of the structure, formerly visible from afar, was plastered over late sometime late in the last decade (according to my memory either soon after disturbances in the aftermath of the Israeli incursion into Gaza or the Mavi Marmara affair).  Vague traces of the inscription can be seen in the full sized raw file of the photo above, my reading thereof being the Hebrew words “Beit HaHolim Or Hayim” (Or Ahayim Hospital). Somewhere in my archives, I have a photo taken early in 2008 in which the inscription was still clearly legible. Oddly, a similar blurring over of the inscription is shown on the ostensibly vintage illustrations on the hospital’s website.  Two other inscriptions near ground-level, both less obvious to passersby, still proclaim the origin and  identity of the building: Over the main doorway, in Latin characters, the words “Musevi Hastanesi” (Jewish Hospital) and, on a small plaque tucked away at the lower left corner of the facade, in Hebrew characters but in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish, the former language of the Jews of Istanbul) the inscription “Ispital Or HaHayim” followed by the Gregorian date 1898 and its Hebrew calendar equivalent, 5658.

Erasure of Urbanity

Erasure and obliteration of Hebrew inscriptions, six-pointed stars, and building construction dates according to the Jewish calendar from communal structures and residences originally built by Jews has been a feature of renovations and gentrification of quarters of Istanbul including Galata and Kuzguncuk.  Whether intentional or out of ignorance, such erasures dovetail with the present-day rejection of the past urbanity of Istanbul as well as with the reformulation of identity and history in a self-styled, and thus increasingly, homogeneous and mono-religious Turkey.

 

Balat, Istanbul, late-afternoon, December 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Late afternoon light. Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The birthday last month of a friend with a sharp and compassionate eye for the poignancy and ironies of urban details provided an impetus for me to cull the archives and print images including the ones above and below, both taken late afternoon some years ago in the quarter of Balat on the shore of the Golden Horn, Istanbul.

Changing Populations

For centuries, Balat and surroundings had been home to Jews, Armenians, and Greeks.  From the 1940s on, these “minority” populations, both of Balat, and of adjacent, once mostly-Greek, Fener, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate, plummeted.  Traditional occupations, including those of Jews as boatmen and stevedores in Istanbul’s once-nearby port facilities (which, during the mid-20th century, in search of ample space, shifted outwards towards the urban edge) faded away, contributing to the departure of poorer Jews for Israel and better-off ones to newer neighborhoods north of Taksim Square, along the upper shores of the Bosporus, and on Istanbul’s Asian side.  Armenians followed similar patterns of migration within the city.  Greeks were pressured to leave Balat, Fener, and, for that matter, all of Istanbul en masse following the anti-minority riots of the mid-1950s and a series of expulsions and seizures of property thereafter. By the 1960s and 1970s, Balat became the province of a new wave of residents, emigrants from towns and villages in north and central Anatolia.

Recently, the population of the quarter has begun to change again.   Neighborhood ties have loosened and descendants of the new arrivals of two and three generations ago seek better housing elsewhere.   Developers have razed older structures at the northern edge of Balat and begun to build modern, higher-priced ones in their place.  Refugees from Syria, Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds, monied and poor, have found homes in the Balat’s still ample stock of dilapidated housing.   The very same housing supply provides a magnet attracting a first wave of gentrifiers with tastes for traditional housing near the urban core and with sufficient financial resources to purchase and renovate individual apartments or entire buildings.  Their presence is signaled by the openings of antiques stores and espresso bars.  Their arrivals and the arrivals of those in their footsteps cause local real estate prices to skyrocket.

Afternoon Light and Shadows

As some buildings are razed and others renovated, as established locals depart, and as gentrifiers pursue their dreams of authenticity and refugees build new lives in the face of uncertainties, memories and echoes of those who lived in Balat long before  them vanish.   Decades of newer residents walk past shuttered synagogues, underused churches, and Jewish and Christian communal buildings only peripherally conscious of what was once central to the lives of those who they replaced.  One thing still remains constant, however … the afternoon light, ricocheting off the facades of Balat’s east-west streets and shrouding its north-south ones in shadows.

Row Houses, Balat, Istanbul. Late afternoon, December, 2011.  The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses is one of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul's most densely populated Jewish neighborhood.

Late afternoon shadows, row houses, Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses shown  is a of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood. Click on image to enlarge.

Rowhouses and Sea Walls Saved by … Automobiles!

Six or seven years ago, I joined a friend/colleague from the architectural department of one of Istanbul’s universities to trace the remainders of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls in the court yards and backstreets of Balat closest to the water’s edge.  Over the centuries, progressive silting, intentional landfill, and the construction of a shore line roadway and green space had stranded extant fragments seawalls a few hundred meters inland.  The purpose of our survey was to ensure that historic seawall fragments would remain untouched in the face of a proposed real estate development project that would transform rows of houses, like those below, into upscale townhouses by restoring their facings but fully gutting, enlarging, and rebuilding their interiors.  Ultimately, the project did not go through.  Ironically, it was done in by the automobile: to wit, Istanbul residents of the income levels the development consider automobile ownership and parking within meters of their doorsteps as an entitled prerogative.  The narrow streets of Balat simply could not provide sufficient access and parking space.  Automobiles to the rescue, thus!

The Golden Horn from the boat dock at Kasımpaşa. In the background, the Mosque of Sultan Selim Yavuz, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn from the boat dock at Kasımpaşa. In the background, the Mosque of Sultan Selim Yavuz, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn: (Halıç in Turkish), a long, narrow body of water — an estuary actually — that, wedge-like, splits into two the core of the European side of the inner city of Istanbul.  In Byzantine times the Golden Horn served as a safe harbor, shielded from currents and the depredations of raiders.  In times of danger, an iron chain barrier was stretched across its entrance-way, providing security that in the end proved illusory (in the face of not being able to sail into the Golden Horn, 15th-century Ottoman conquerors simply dragged their boats up and down the surrounding hills entered the Golden Horn from its banks).

From Harbor to Relic

In Ottoman times, the Golden Horn was a gateway to docks, wharfs, entrepôts, and workshops that lined its length and to the thriving markets on the slopes above it. By the early-twentieth century, as manufacturing functions moved further afield and maritime traffic increased and ships grew in size, the harbor function of Istanbul was displaced outward, first to nearby Karaköy, then to the late-19th-century Anatolian rail-head at Heyderapaşa. Later, as Istanbul sprawled far to the east and along the shores of Sea of Marmara, the harbor function shifted even afield to new lower-density industrial zones and truck traffic transfer nodes offering proximity to highways and ample space for handling containerized freight.

From Conduit to Barrier

As its utility declined, the Golden Horn changed from a conduit to an inconvenient barrier to be traversed.  By the start of the 20th century, a floating pontoon bridge across the Golden Horn facilitated movement to and from the commercial neighborhoods of Galata and Eminönu on opposite sides of the mouth of the Golden Horn.  By the end of the century, the pontoon bridge was replaced by a fixed structure and two additional bridges had been built, one for local automotive traffic and the as part of a ring-road highway bypassing the inner city. Last year, a fourth bridge, for pedestrians and Istanbul’s growing underground metro system, joined their ranks.

Axes of Infrastructure and Subjectivity of Trajectories

Recently, I’ve been doing some longer-form writing on the subjectivity of our mappings of urban geography and on the effects that radical changes in axes of public transportation have on our trajectories, imaginings, and horizons.  As a user (as well as an observer) of public transportation, the opening of the metro bridge and the axis of underground transportation it enabled, suddenly allowed me to move in only minutes between locations that had once taken an hour or two to reach.  Now, I can visit in a single morning or afternoon I can visit parts of the city that I previously had to schedule for separate days.  Better yet, I can now jump back and forth between disparate worlds.  The new metro line  transcends social disparities and well as space. Stylish Nişantaşı and working class Fatih, physically at opposite ends of the city, geographically and in terms of worldview are now neighbors time-wise.  The Istanbul of traditional religious faith and economic activity is now of a piece with modern, secular, high-tech and high-income Istanbul.  Rapid public transport across Golden Horn creates a breach an aquatic and cultural “Berlin Wall”  I look forward to observing the outcomes.

The Golden Horn from Eminönü, 2012. In the background, the start of construction of the Halıç Metro Bridge. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The Golden Horn from Eminönü, 2012. In the background, the start of construction of the Halıç Metro Bridge. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Photographic Postscript

Framing…

These last  days, while commuting back and forth between the Asian and European halves of Istanbul — a city of broad waterways, vistas, and dramatic light reflected on strong currents — I’ve come to long for the telephoto lenses I’ve usually eschewed. For years, “normal” or near-“normal” focal-length lenses — 80mm on 6×6, 135 on 6×9, 35 and 50mm equivalent on APS — have been the longest that I’ve used.  None of these lenses enable me to transcend distance, compress perspective, or pluck far-away subjects from their surroundings.  My “work-around” has been to frame faraway subjects within the contours of serendipitously present foreground objects.  Not the best solution, perhaps, but one that can result in unusual  compositions and juxtapositions as well a consistency in “language” of perspective and field of view.

Earlier this week, an acquaintance of many decades, Doc Searls, posted a nice weblog post featuring images and quotes from my recent entries on Bubkes.Org.  In his commentary, Doc suggested that horizontality is the defining characteristic of human perception and, with this, of photography as well.  I disagree … I’m a partisan of the vertical.

To continue reading (about squares, oblongs, verticals, men, and pumpkins) click here or on the “Read More” button below

Read More

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Two views of a courtyard set between 1930s apartment houses, Sofia, Bulgaria, August, 2014.  The photo above was taken through the partially open sliding glass windows of a small balcony; the one below from the open window of a stairwell.  In Sofia, courtyards reveal life as it is lived.  Kitchens, bathrooms, and smaller bedrooms look out over courtyards. Courtyard balconies are stuffed with buckets, mops, winter provisions, and laundry, or are fitted with windows and converted into extra kitchen space.  Courtyard trees soar upward in search of light, and, at ground level, vegetation and detritus intertwine and moulder.

Photographic footnote

The two photos in this post are amongst the first I’ve taken with Fuji’s newly released 1.4x tele-adapter mounted on my X100 digital camera.  The adapter converters the angle of view of the camera’s fixed lens from 35mm “full-frame-equivalent” to 50mm — from moderate wide-angle to normal perspective, thus.

(With thanks to physicist and thinker, athlete and adventurer, Boyan Penkov for delivering the converter to me in Sofia.)

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Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istanbul, from Piyale Paşa Bulvari across from the Perpa wholesale complex upwards to Bomonti, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

As the summer temperatures rises, a few images of snow-dusted city-scapes that hint at the dynamics of a city …

Unlike my native New York, which — despite  falling victim to a recent epidemic of new high-rise apartment and office towers geared to the profits of real estate developers and the prerogatives of the well-heeled, many of them part-time residents  — remains a city of mostly late-19th- and early-20th-century brick structures, Istanbul, even with its plethora of centuries-old religious and secular monuments, is, in no small part, a city of concrete low-rise buildings and, more recently, of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and gated residential “communities.”

The views captured in the first and second photos in this post were taken from a one-time river valley, now the site of a multl-lane traffic thoroughfare, looking upward toward the neighborhood of Bomonti. The photos portray in miniature some of the features and processes that shape and call into question the futures of Istanbul and cities like it. Both photos captures Istanbul’s geography of heights and river valleys, with the more desirable locations on top and the least desirable at the bottom (this rooted in “ür”- concerns of rain- and waste-water drainage, air circulation, security, and  symbolism of dominance), with gentrification occurring literally from the top down.

“Landed-By-Night”

In the bottom halves of the photos are one- and two-story illegally-built squatters’ dwellings, in Turkish geçekondu, “landed-by-night,” in recognition of the regulations- and authorities-defying overnight speed and covertness with which they were built. Beginning a half-century ago, during a peak in population growth when housing was scarce and expensive, Geçekondu arose in Istanbul’s vacant lots and least desirable slopes as a grass-roots means of sheltering waves of poorer  new arrivals to the city.

Above the geçekondu, sited seemingly at random, are multistory cooperative and rental apartments built on the footprints of razed geçekondu — their sites amassed through buy-outs of squatters’-rights land titles ultimately granted to  geçekondu occupants in exchange for apartment units in buildings constructed on the footprints of their one-time illegal dwellings.

At the tops of the two photos are high-rises of skyscraper proportions. The upper left of the photo above reveals an office complex still under construction at the time  (note: these photos were taken in 2012. The same photo taken again today would contain ever more high-rises in its upper reaches). At the upper right of both photos, approaching completion, is the front-most of two adjacent twin “luxury” apartment towers with the unappetizing and dehumanizing, deadpan name of “Ant Hill Towers.” Because they are built on a downward slope, the twin high-rises of Ant Hill Towers are barely seem from the older, predominantly middle- and upper-scale neighborhoods above and also from along the Bosporus.  From Istanbul’s historic peninsula, however, Ant Hill Towers are a perpetual presence that overwhelms the skyline.

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Skyscrapers, Economies, Politics

Construction of high-rise office and apartment buildings has been a driver of the Turkish economy and a lucrative boondoggle for supporters of Turkey’s Prime Minister and his party and, as recent scandals alleged, maybe even for the Prime Minister himself. Through the filters of the cast of characters of my native New York, I sometimes see the Turkish Prime Minister as a cross between Tammany Hall’s Carmine De Sapio and ex-Mayors Rudolf Guliani and Michael Bloomberg (minus the latter’s bicycle lanes and bicycle rental programs and admittedly worthy tree-planting): i.e. cronyism plus misanthropy plus out-and-out pandering to the political and fund-raising support of real estate and construction interests.

Impacts of “Twin Towers” and the Labile Value of Views

Viewing Ant Hill Towers from a New York perspective also brings to mind … the Twin Towers of the belated World Trade Center — not from the perspective of the murderous destruction of the latter but from that of its conception and inception.  Peel away the undeniable tragedy of the attack on the World Trade Center and the present-day cheesiness and carnival of “9/11″ museums and memorials, and one recalls New York’s World Trade Center as it was greeted upon its completion back in the 1960s: i.e. as a twin eyesore, an economic white-elephant that would take years to achieve a base-level of occupancy, and a burden upon the city’s infrastructure (water and sewage system, subway capacity, etc.).

It is my not-too-uneducated guess that Ant Hill Towers, not unlike the World Trade Center, was designed and built as a structure in and of itself and not as part of a city, as a vertical suburb set in the urban core. I  also assume that little if any attention was given to its effects on water/waste-water or power grids, nor to resulting surface water run-off, traffic congestion, pedestrian flows, or impacts on adjacent neighborhoods, let only on the city’s aesthetics.  What was attended to, however, was the profit potential of building on under-utilized, centrally-located land and the marketing of princely ownership of views.  Views, however, can be  ephemeral and short-lived . The more structures that rise to exploit them, the more that views become obstructed and have their value undermined.  Given time and the mushrooming of their like, views from mundane high-rises soon become views of other mundane high-rises, unwelcome mirrors rather than princely expanses.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

The upper stories of the Ant Hill Towers apartment complex, as seen from a football field at the heights of Feriköy, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air.  I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.

I took the photo almost 15 years ago.  Where is the the street vendor today?  I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul.  I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large  prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma,  a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality.  Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level.  Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.

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