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.
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.
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!