One of my key inspirations for my book — besides just living in Istanbul for a long time — was the neighborhood of Tarlabaşı. It’s just down the hill from Taksim, the glitzy nightlife and shopping district in the center of town. What really fascinates me about the place is that although the neighborhoods of Cihangir and Karakoy, while also just down the hill from Taksim, became upmarket targets for gentrification, Tarlabaşı most definitely did not. On one side of Taksim, opulence; on Tarlabaşı’s side, abandonment, poverty, a totally different world. The people in Karakoy and Cihangir are one kind of diverse (European, wealthier, whiter) and the people of Tarlabaşı are the other kind of diverse (Asian-ier, poorer, browner). Cihangir is packed with third-wave coffee shops, art studios, hipster barbers — Tarlabaşı has a lot of crime, and the garbage-picker’s union. They are literally right next to each other and yet almost nobody from either neighborhood visits the other.
And yet: it’s valuable real estate. The government passed a law many election cycles ago allowing them to purchase any building they deemed lucrative enough for development, regardless of the owner’s or inhabitant’s wishes. The AKP rushed to buy up property and kick out the Roma residents (that would be the gypsies). They built new government housing for them, but the houses are 1) so expensive that all the residents have to take out crushing loans to be able to afford them, and 2) too far away from Taksim to continue to work. Many Roma still earn money the traditional way — that is, playing music on the streets for pedestrians and restaurant patrons. There’s nobody to play music for in the suburbs.
But it’s still a vibrant neighborhood, full of life and happiness. People string their laundry between buildings and gossip, kids are playing in the street. It’s not a side of Istanbul that most get to see. Most of my book is set there, so while I was visiting Istanbul last weekend, I took a research walk.