Historic quarter fears the future as gentrification sweeps Turkey's Marmara coast
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By Paul Benjamin Osterlund
ISTANBUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Suleyman Karaman has long been caretaker of an ornate Armenian Orthodox Church built more than 100 years ago in Istanbul's Yali quarter - an area now under threat from the city's relentless expansion.
The softly-spoken custodian, who lives with his wife in a cottage on the grounds of the Surp Tateos Partogomeos church, is among hundreds of Yali residents watching with mixed feelings as their historic district transforms before their eyes.
While some say they fear the government's development plans near the Marmara seaside will destroy the fabric of the community, Karaman backs the clean-up.
"There are a lot of problems around here," said Karaman, 66, complaining of petty crime by gangs in the area, where many residents live as squatters in aging buildings left to decay.
Hüseyin Ustaoğlu, Yali's "muhtar", or head of neighborhood affairs, said he too was in favor of cleaning up the area but expressed concern about how changes might affect residents.
Property ownership is complicated in the tiny district, where residents comprise renters, homeowners and squatters, he said.
"There are properties owned by church foundations, by the local municipality and by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB). There are residents with deeds and others without."
Many of the classic early 20th century buildings in Yali's crumbling streets have fallen into disarray, and many sit vacant or are inhabited by those too poor to live elsewhere.
Now, as the Marmara coast undergoes rapid development, the historic neighborhood is being squeezed on all sides.
The quarter is surrounded by a defunct railway, the Yenikapi transit hub and construction site of the Avrasya tunnel, Istanbul's first underwater highway and an ambitious project that aims to link the European and Asian sides of the city.
Constant development has not just left the Marmara coast a fenced-off area dominated by the din of construction vehicles, it has stirred unease among residents who fear being priced out.
Last year, Mayor Mustafa Demir announced the city had obtained permission from the Cultural and Natural Assets Preservation Board to restore more than 100 officially designated historic structures in the coastal area.
Demi said that hotels and buildings of no more than three storeys would be built facing the coast, as well as a mosque, park and underground car park.
The announcement was welcomed by homeowners as a boon for the value of property, but tenants say rents have already gone up and they fear being unable to afford to stay in their homes.
In recent years, Tarlabaşı, a mainly Kurdish quarter in the center of Istanbul that has an even more impressive trove of historic buildings, has undergone a sweeping gentrification project spanning luxury residential and commercial real estate.
Critics say hundreds of historic buildings have been destroyed and many people have been forced to leave the area.
Now it is the turn of the population of Yali to confront the reality of the upgrading of their area.
Once home to Armenians and Greeks who bequeathed the elegant buildings, the area fell into disarray after its original inhabitants abandoned the city amid anti-minority policies.
By the time most of the Armenians had left - to be replaced by Kurds from the southeastern province of Mardin - Suleyman Karaman had also headed west from the province of Batman and become caretaker of the Surp Tateos Partogomeos church.
Apart from Karaman and his wife, today there are just 10 Armenians living in the neighborhood.
"Usually, around 10 or 15 people show up [to church], but if there are those coming from Bakırköy [a district with a large Armenian population] there are as many as 50," Karaman said, lighting a rolled cigarette from a small tin box emblazoned with a photo of Istanbul's iconic Galata Tower.
While Karaman favors the clean-up of the neighborhood - and it doesn't hurt that the church is protected from demolition by law - the situation is not as clear-cut for Yılmaz, a Kurdish man in his fifties who works at an outdoor cafe in Yali.
Once a small oasis shaded by trees, today the cafe offers a view of the Avrasya tunnel and the hum of jackhammers pervades the once-calm atmosphere. When the construction is finished, that noise will be replaced by the cacophony of traffic.
"This place used to be gorgeous. All the famous singers performed at the Çakıl nightclub across the street," said Yılmaz. The area used to be home to a number of iconic venues that have been demolished.
He acknowledges that something needs to be done to spruce up the dilapidated quarter. "If this neighborhood was in another country, it wouldn't be in this condition," he said, adding that he hopes the cafe will survive all the changes.
That seems unlikely, however, since the makeover of Yalı is expected to result in such spaces being bulldozed.
Across from the cafe, ducks and chickens meander around a coop and fruit-sellers hawk their wares from mobile carts.
In many ways, Yalı has stayed like a village in the center of a huge city, residents say. But, as the district is gentrified, there are fears this village atmosphere will vanish.
Another local, Mehmet, 51, rents out a building he owns in Yali and lives elsewhere, but he still prefers to spend his days in the quarter where he lived for decades and where he once restored the former home of the priest at the Armenian church.
He is unhappy at what he says is the suffocation of the neighborhood by the urban projects going on around it.
"We can't breathe," he said. "But we've been here 50 years. Where else will we go?"
(Reporting by Paul Benjamin Osterlund, Editing by Jo Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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