There is a very old and run-down district of İstanbul called Tarlabasi that I like very much. A lot of people from eastern Turkey live there as well as a community of Turkish Roma (gypsies). It’s a bit mad and whenever I go over there, usually to visit the Syrian Orthodox Church, I generally find myself in conversation with someone who either claims to be Steven Spielberg or needs my help to locate their guardian angel. In summer, great lines of limp looking washing hang between the crumbling 19th century tenement buildings and wall eyed dogs roam the streets in search of anything even remotely edible. This is not a place for the delicate or faint hearted. You would think therefore, that when I heard that Tarlabasi was about to be ‘regenerated’, I would have been delighted, if only for the poor locals. But I’m not and neither are said locals.
Don’t get me wrong the plans for the new Tarlabasi look great. Lots of nice clean buildings and nice ordered streets with not a dog or a line of washing in sight. Lovely if you’re a nice middle class professional with a great big wallet from which to extract market-rate rent. Fab if you’ve got a tumble drier and your dogs, if you have them, are strictly indoor pets. But for people from rural settlements, accustomed to communal living, people with little money, I wonder. They do too and many of the current residents are up in arms about the plans.
One of the problems for me, is that I’ve seen it all before. For as long as I can remember various organisations have been trying to ‘revitalise’ the east end of London where I was born. It wasn’t until the 1980s that anything actually happened, but when it did it had very little to do with east-enders themselves. Canary Wharf and the redevelopment around Wapping and Limehouse was done for the benefit of business and of the rich who thought it might be a bit of a laugh to eschew Chelsea in favour of Shoreditch and slum it for a while. And so we got vast blocks of uber-clean glass and steel and Disney-fied streets of old, picturesque houses inhabited (occasionally) by politicians and American film stars. Poor they may be, but the people of Tarlabasi are not fools, they’ve heard the rumours and they fear what might be coming.
When I told a friend of mine about my fears for Tarlabasi, she said that she’d heard about the protests against the development, but she was sure that it would be OK. Her point was that developers have learned not to ride roughshod over historic buildings and communities these days. If I hadn’t recently been over to the London Olympic site, I might have agreed with her. But I was there last week, looking on helplessly as another piece of London’s heritage was bashed down by a wrecking ball. Nice shiny stadium versus the dirty old factory where plastic was invented? No contest. New is good and healthy and profitable and anyway its better for you, so there!
Is it just me who thinks like this? No. It’s actually a lot of communities and individuals all over the world. Sadly, we don’t tend to be the ones with any power but… I have this fabulous dream that one day a chrome and glass sports centre will be pulled down to make way for a gas-lit absinthe bar. Now that is what I call progress!