A devastating string of attacks and woeful city planning have driven away locals and tourists alike, prompting a swift process of decline.
Istanbul's central Beyoğlu district experienced sweeping gentrification throughout the 2000s, as its popularity increased among locals and a boom in tourism brought more and more visitors. But a devastating string of terror attacks and woeful city planning have driven away locals and tourists alike, prompting a swift process of decline.
“Everything goes well for a couple years. Then, out of a blue moon, something happens that one can hardly anticipate in advance,” says Dr. Murat Güvenç, who heads the Istanbul Studies Center at the city's Kadir Has University. “There are bombs exploding, the country adopts a totally different future path or diplomatic standing, and the tourists are no longer coming.”
The effect has been instant even in some of the city's most chic neighborhoods. Cihangir is home to dozens of popular cafes, bars, and a gorgeous collection of historic buildings—many of which gaze serenely out over the Bosphorus.
Long known for its intellectual and bohemian character, Cihangir of the early ‘90s was home to one of the city’s first punk venues, which occupied the top floor of a building that looked out at the iconic strait that divides Europe and Asia. The neighborhood was also a hub for the city's transgender community until a wave of new cafes and bars swept through in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, leading to higher rents. Until recently, Cihangir was among the most coveted spots in the city but “for rent” signs are increasingly common now. Rental prices have dropped 20 percent since last year, according to Yalçın Bayazıtlı, a real estate agent who has lived and worked in Cihangir his entire life. Bayazıtlı said that most homeowners won't go any lower, though some properties have managed to depreciate in value even further. “One apartment that was going for TL 5,000 ($1,400) a month is now listed at TL 3,500 ($980),” says Bayazıtlı.
The nearby Asmalımescit area was perhaps the most lively nightlife destination in Istanbul until around 2011, when a municipal decision to ban outdoor seating dealt a disastrous blow to its vitality. Rumor has it that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once tried to pass through the area in his car but became stuck in the narrow streets. When a drinker raised their glass to him, he became enraged and subsequently ordered the tables and chairs to be rounded up. Though Asmalımescit managed to weather the storm for a few years, venues closed down one by one and today the winding backstreets are a dismal sight with numerous shuttered bars and restaurants. Known as a dodgy area in the 1990s where glue-huffers would take refuge in the narrow alleyways, Asmalımescit is now at risk of resembling its former self.
Between these two neighborhoods is the pedestrian-only Istiklal Avenue, a once-majestic thoroughfare of European architecture, foreign consulates, cinemas, pastry shops, and historic arcades. In recent years, the street's beloved and storied small business culture became suffocated by the openings of dozens of chain stores, which helped send property values skyrocketing.
But on a Saturday morning in March of last year, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS blew himself up on Istiklal, killing four people—all tourists. Traffic on the street—formerly a constant, swelling stream of people that was challenging to navigate through—plummeted, and name-brand stores started leaving the neighborhood as fast as they first appeared. Before the attack, adjacent backstreets had become host to dozens of impressive new hotels that seemed to spring up overnight, but many have become plagued by extremely low occupancy rates—about 20 percent as of last August.
For Güvenç, the city planning decisions made in Istanbul during its boom were oriented toward affluent globetrotters. Though they don't live in the city, urban areas are often restructured to suit their tastes, Güvenç says. “These are the people that can travel the world, stay 10 days in New York, 10 days in Los Angeles, and then fly to Tokyo,” he says. “Their wishes and desires dictate what is to be done and what is to be put aside,” says Güvenç of the weight they carry in the planning of a typical 21st century global city. And as Turkish Airlines, the country's flagship airline, expanded its routes to connect Istanbul to cities throughout the world, cruise ships also docked in the city with more frequency. The long-neglected Istanbul, and its breathtaking views, had become a must-see for this coveted demographic.
After more attacks struck Istanbul, including a particularly shocking shooting spree at the city's main airport in June 2016, tourism revenues declined sharply—nearly 30 percent in 2016 compared to the prior year—and well before anyone could have previously anticipated any sort of tourism or real estate bust. While the occupancy rate for Istanbul in general increased 27.9 percent from April 2016 to April of this year, the average price per room decreased 29.8 percent, the worst performance in Europe.
Galataport, a $1.1 billion construction project on the coast just down the hill from Cihangir, sought to cater to the previously growing demographic of luxury tourists by creating a groomed waterfront with even more room for the cruise ships that were docking nearby, along with shopping promenades and hotels. “They started to restructure the entire waterfront area in the anticipation that more cruise ships would come, organizing the area in a such a way that these cruise ship travelers will be higher in number and spend more money in the vicinity,” says Güvenç.
The heavily-contested project has been a source of outrage for urban activists in Istanbul, and boiled over after two historic buildings were demolished within the scope of Galataport's construction. The project was promptly halted by the city municipality in April, though Güvenç believes that the contractors welcomed this decision as they faced to lose a considerable sum of money for an endeavor that is sure to fail if the current tourism figures remain.
Erdem Dilbaz, an electronic arts producer that has lived in Beyoğlu for 20 years, started documenting the closures on Istiklal Avenue in a Facebook photo album. The album now features more than 50 photos. “There was never a point in time where there were vacancies on Istiklal,” Dilbaz said of his motivation to keep tabs on the startling trend.
Making matters worse is the disgraceful condition of the street itself, which has been paved over repeatedly. Following major efforts to repair the trolley line that the runs the length of the avenue (which involved stripping the entire track) Istiklal is now a patchy blend of faux-cobblestone, asphalt, and piles of rocks. I tweeted a photo of the street taken in 2000, when it was lined with trees and in much better shape. It has been retweeted more than 3,000 times, as the visual triggers shock from residents who had never seen the street in that condition and nostalgia from those who had.
Dilbaz sees a silver lining in the series of closures, and harbors no small semblance of schadenfreude for the expensive restaurants and chain stores that have recently departed. “I wasn't sad at all when House Cafe closed down,” he says, referring to a branch of an overpriced local cafe chain where people went to be seen. “That type of culture does not suit Istiklal.”
Bayazıtlı, the Cihangir real estate agent, doesn't believe that rental prices in his neighborhood will drop any further than the 20 percent figure he shares. “Owners will prefer to keep their homes empty with the hope that things will return to how they were before.” he says. Bayazıtlı admits, however, that he cannot be certain of this. “If another bomb explodes, perhaps they will continue to fall.”