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Urban Dynamics

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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.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge spanning the waters of the Golden Horn; Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film. Click on image to enlarge.

The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul.  The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.

The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned.  Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul.  (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)

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I’ve neglected this site since early February.  Obligations and commitments in Istanbul and the Balkans — including an enjoyable half-day tour and presentation on the historical and present-day dynamics of the city of Sofia, Bulgaria, that gave to visiting students and faculty from New York University — took up most of February and March.

In April, I left for a multi-month stay in New York, a city of immense parks street-side greenery — in this respect not unlike Sofia, where, as I write, the leaves of a tall birch tree brush against my window and the scent of the thousands of blossoming linden trees that line the city’s streets and shade it’s courtyards perfumes the air.

Late in March, the weather in Sofia was spring-like. New York, to the contrary, was enduring a seemingly endless cold-spell following a near-arctic winter.  Nevertheless, by May, trees and shrubbery came alive and blossoms burst forth.  The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west.  On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn.  However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.

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(All photos in the series taken with a Fuji X100)

Read More

Late-19th-century "çarșı"-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

Late-19th-century “çarșı”-style row house, Pirotska St., Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Note the neo-classical decorative elements and prim domesticity of the curtained windows on the second story and the presence of an Apteka (pharmacy) on the ground floor. (Fuji x100). Click on image to enlarge.

After the founding of an independent Bulgarian kingdom in the aftermath the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the city of Sofia was chosen as the capital of the new nation-state.  The choice of Sofia comprises a tale unto itself.  True to the nation-state model, from day-one newly independent Bulgaria was giddy with dreams of expansion, northward, westward, and southward (to the east, expansion was blocked by the waters the Black Sea).  Sofia, located near Bulgaria’s western border, would be at the country’s epicenter if Bulgaria would succeed in realizing its revanchist “manifest destiny” by expanding westward to the Lake Ohrid and annexing all of Macedonia.

At the time, Sofia had not fully recovered from a heavy earthquake and ensuing epidemics during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.  The city boasted the palatial residence of the former Ottoman governor — soon to be re-purposed as the palace of a monarch recruited from a family of minor German “nobility”– and a main thoroughfare paved with ocher-colored bricks imported from abroad.  For the rest, however, Sofia’s streets were warrens of winding lanes centered around Friday mosques, neighborhood mesjids for daily prayer, churches, wells and fountains.

The first step in creating a self-styled European capital was to sweep away the old Ottoman neighborhood structure and cut a street plan in the western model.  The adopted plan combined a rectilinear street grid with a circular ring road and curving boulevards ala Hausmann’s plan for Paris.  The next step was true to the model of mono-ethnic nation state that Bulgaria was striving to become: “ethnic cleansing.  Gypsies and Jews, the latter comprising a full one-third of Sofia’s population of 10,000 at the time, were forcibly expelled from the city center; Jews to the newly cut parallel streets of  Üç Bunar (“Three Wells)” to the west of downtown Sofia, and Gypsies further outward to the far bank of the Vladaya river, one of several seasonally flooding streams that together formed a moat surrounding the city.

Amongst the new grid of streets cut from Sofia’s main north-south boulevard through the old Ottoman quarter of Sungur and out to Üç Bunar was Pirot, today Pirotska.  The downtown end of Pirotska eventually was lined with European-style apartment houses.  At the Üç Bunar end of Pirotska an older form of architecture still dominates: Two-to-three-story row-houses built in çarʂı (Turkish for “arcade” and “market”) style, with commercial space for shops and craftsmen’s ateliers on the ground floors and family dwellings on the floor(s) above.  Such çarʂı dwellings contributed to the re-shaping of Sofia by spatially integrating the functions of residential streets and  market quarters.  By doing so, they contributed to a culture of urban street life and the emergence of an urban middle- and lower-middle-class and paths to class mobility, both essential elements of democratic nation-building, an imperfect process in Bulgaria to this very day.

Broom sellers, "Women's" Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.)  Click to enlarge.

Roma broom sellers, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.) Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …

The Virtues of Slow Lenses

A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create  narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur.  As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in an old  “T*Series” twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago.  The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm,  the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras.  This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective.  The Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and also puts a limit on how shallow depth of field can be.  In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …

The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet.  Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh foodstuffs in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet crystallized.  Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline.  Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.

In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction.  What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess.  What remains are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others halfheartedly hawking their wares.

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions throughout the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enable the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constrict their choices.  The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even less?

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks, and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms, are run by Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings.  The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor.  Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well.  Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the  insights of developmental  economists such as Albert O. Hirschman.  The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.

Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully.  Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market.  On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the Market’s name.  During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War.  Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a regime that came to power almost three decades after his death.  Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.

Festering blame that has never been resolved

There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market.  During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves.  At the same time, within the boundaries of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property.  Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock.  From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that is more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” however, was to emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended.

Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter.  Their  deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.

Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet

Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension.  Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world.  The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books about Israel’s Mossad.  Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters.  Few social gatherings of upper-income or cultured urban Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them — usually with story lines about rich Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes of greed.

In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and pedlars. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived.  Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller.  Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride.  For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to  do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors …  this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales!  As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians and their like, as we used to say on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n d’r’ert!”

View from my desk at sunrise, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter 2011-2012. (Fuji X100).  Click to enlarge.

Sofia, Bulgaria, view from my desk at sunrise on a December morning, 2011.  (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

The image above shows the view from the desk I have been using during my stays in Sofia, Bulgaria over the last seventeen years.  For nearly two decades, the view has barely changed. The building on the far left received a coat of yellow paint some years ago, a window was cut into the roof of the building at the foreground and a birch tree that stood to the building’s left was felled during a storm.  However, the sensation I experience each time I glance out the window has remained constant — a feeling of floating above the city encased in a my own private bubble.

Even banal views belie tales of change. The above panorama of sky, roof tiles, distant trees, and the upper floors of Bauhaus-influenced facades may have remained fixed but life on the streets three stories below has gone through upheavals.  Competing political regimes and severe economic crisis have come and gone, Sofia’s population has increased 2.5x, a new generation of Sofia residents has been born and grown to near-adulthood, and the bulk of the economic and social lives of the city have moved out of the center to new areas at the urban periphery.

Seventy years ago, some of the rooftops in this very view were aflame during wartime aerial bombardments of Sofia. (Bulgaria, not to forget, was an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany and was fire-bombed by the British and Americans in reprisal, a matter cynically relegated to amnesia during both the Soviet- and post-Soviet eras).

During the years that the view above has been mine to enjoy, the building in the foreground has gone through several incarnations, all reflective of changes in the city at large. Soon after the denouement of the Communist period, during a time of unregulated gangster-capitalism, the building housed the offices of Bulgaria’s first GSM mobile telecommunications provider, initially owned by a succession of Russian and Israeli investors backed by dubious sources of capital.  Not long after, during a period of foreign largesse and a cargo-cult of NGO boondoggles, the building housed the Bulgarian representation of the United Nations Development Program.  Thereafter, the building remained vacant for some years until, this past month, it was refurbished to house private law offices.

Just as the view from my desk in Sofia points to stories of external changes, it also reveals changes in the viewer.  Over the years that I have used the desk, I’ve been in and out of Sofia as a mid-life Fulbright research scholar and photographer,  a convalescent and physical therapy patient following a severe accident,  a field worker for a US government project documenting aspects of the cultural heritage of ethnic and religious minorities, and  a consultant to various companies and institutions in Western and Central Europe. These last few months, I’ve been in Sofia for  time-consuming dental work, itself a revealing tale of sugar-laden, post-war American diet, prohibitively priced US dentistry, inadequate Western and Eastern European dentistry in the 1970s and 80s, past accidents, and poor luck at the roulette table of genetics.  I hope to be able to leave Sofia by mid-month — when I do, the memory of the view from my desk will travel with me.

An archway at the entrance of a tenement in the Tarlebaşı quarter of Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

An archway at the entrance of a tenement in the lower reaches of the Tarlebaşı quarter of Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

The streets sloping downward from the north side of present-day Istiklal Caddessi to Dolapdere Bulvari in the valley below are dense with late-19th- and early-20th-century tenements and apartment houses. Most are in disrepair but many have recently been restored as the area begins to undergo the preservationist benefits and human dislocations of gentrification and discovery by “cool” young westerners some oblivious of the lives of their neighbors and some enthralled by the seeming “romance” of the poverty … of others.

The area was built up in the late 19th century by Istanbul Christians, Greeks mostly.  It underwent a major demographic change following government-fomented anti-minority pogroms in 1956.  With the forced exit of Greeks, the neighborhood became a haven for the traditional inner city poor and recent arrivals from rural areas: Turkish Sunnis, Kurds, Alevis, and Roma.  The process of ghettoization was completed in the 1960s by the cutting of Tarlebaşı Bulvari, a multi-laned thoroughfare that served as a wall isolating streets immediately adjacent to Istiklal from those on the slope below.

A relationship between typology and geography  characterizes the area’s architecture.  As a rule of thumb, the closer to Istiklal, the larger the plot and grander the structure; the closer to Dolapdere, the smaller the plot and more modest the house.  The neighborhood’s apartment houses tend to be situated on the broader streets and its tenement row houses in smaller streets and alleyways. The closer to Dolapdere, the fewer and more modest the architectural decorative elements.  This makes the archway in the photo above all the more curious.

The archway above shows no relation to Ottoman styles nor to the geometric motifs of Anatolian Greek towns and villages.  In one way, it appears to be a fantasy interpretation of Mogul architecture.  More likely, given the time and the place, it might have been inspired by the so-called Moorish Revival style that arose in the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the Hapsburg annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina or, equally likely, by the eastern-influenced motifs of northern European Art Nouveau and Jugendstil.  By incorporating an ornament inspired by the popular European orientalist fantasies of the time, could the Greek owner or builder of the house in question have been trying to assert his own modernity and self-styled occidental individual identity, this at a time of when Ottoman Christians were focused on national independence ala European nation-states?

More on this theme in subsequent posts…

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