Tarlabaşı Boulevard (pronounced “Tar-la-bash-uh”) runs more or less parallel to the grandiose pedestrianised İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), in the boutique-chic district of Beyoğlu, but no similarity exists between them. Tarlabaşı is like the dark twin of İstiklal. Most Istanbul folk are afraid to even go there, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been warned against it. The biggest threat, I’ve come to learn, from those who fear to tread their fancy shoes onto the filthy streets of Tarlabaşı, is from prostitutes. Not just any prostitutes, but killer transvestite prostitutes, on drugs. My raised eyebrow does nothing to allay the fears of these people, who will often go on to recount third or fourth-hand stories of the time a friend’s cousin’s uncle’s dog’s second owner once got stabbed to death in Tarlabaşı, by, of course, a killer transvestite prostitute on drugs.
Take any of the narrow side-streets that slope down to the north of Tarlabaşı Boulevard, and you will find yourself deep inside the Tarlabaşı neighbourhood itself. The houses here are often more akin to slums. Children run up and down the steep hills, yelling and whirling unidentified objects. Colourful washing criss-crosses the roads above the cars. The pavement is chipped, or often non-existent. Holes gape in the road. People lurk, sit on steps, and generally go about their lives, deeply impoverished, a million miles — and only a few hundred metres — from the high-class luxury shops that dominate a great deal of İstiklal Caddesi.
Once upon a time, Tarlabaşı was home to a great many Greek, Armenian and Jewish merchants and artisans, so the story goes, until they were mostly kicked out during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and resulting carnage, the Armenian genocide and forced population exchange between Greece and the new Republic of Turkey. The area slowly fell into disrepute, and in the late nineteen-eighties, the already dilapidated area was sliced off from the rest of otherwise trendy Beyoğlu by the construction of the disputed four-lane Tarlabaşı Boulevard.
In the 1990s, large numbers of Kurdish migrants from south-eastern Turkey moved into Tarlabaşı, mixing in with the local Romani population. More recently, it has become home to migrants from the Middle East, East Europe and North African countries.
It has been the Turkish Government’s ploy for a long time to eliminate this unsightly blot on the landscape of the fast developing centre of Istanbul. Such a move will of course displace an unknown, yet undeniably large quantity of people who are living inside the area. This includes the marginalised Romani and Kurdish populations, as well as the Syrian families, who are the most recent addition to the neighbourhood. It includes sex-workers, transsexuals, drug addicts, and undocumented people, all of whom are shunned by the wider society and basically have nowhere else to go. Many of these communities have been here for generations, others, like the Syrians, arrived in the city recently. Tarlabaşı contains a thousand tales of heartbreak, hardship and struggle.
Tarlabaşı is also home to the Mutfak, the reason I find myself there today, paying little heed to the scare stories. The first thing I notice on this particular visit is that the route I usually take has been closed off. A whole block at the forefront of the neighbourhood has been fenced off with corrugated metal and partly demolished. The forced evictions have clearly been initiated since my last visit to the area, but I’m surprised at how much of Tarlabaşı is still intact, given that the gentrification project was due to be completed this year.
I find a new route, following the line of the corrugated fence down the hill to the north, and cut across the side streets to the West. I notice a few shops that are still holding out, but many buildings are empty, their windows and other fittings looted.
For the past few years, the Mutfak (‘Kitchen’ in Turkish) has been operating deep inside the heart of Tarlabaşı. This is the Göçmen Dayanışma Mutfağı, or Migrant Solidarity Kitchen, operated by the Migrant Solidarity Network. Every Saturday, people come to the Mutfak to cook and eat a collective meal, hang out, share stories, and organise. On any visit, your meal could be cooked by a collection of people from Turkey, Nigeria, France, Ghana, Egypt, Syria, Italy, or virtually anywhere else. It’s one of my very favourite places to visit in the sprawling metropolis.
The first thing I notice is how many children there are. There were always kids among the adults, but now there are barely any adults at all, aside for the ones who are cooking. I had been told they don’t do food any more, or I would have come earlier to help prepare the soup. Children scrabble and yell in a variety of languages, jostling and playing together. The pitch of the screams rises to a cacophony and I notice that the people volunteering seem more on edge than on earlier visits. The number of new families with young children in the area has been growing exponentially because of the situation in Syria.
A woman in a headscarf comes in with a young child and speaks Arabic with one of the volunteers. He tells her about the free Turkish and English classes, as one child climbs over him, and another screams with joy behind me. An animated film is just about to begin on a big projector screen at the back of the room.
I sit down for part of it and watch the kids settle down for a while and then grow restless again. I drink more of the abundant soup, ladling some into the empty cups of the young boy and girl who tug at my sleeve. I try to chat with some of the volunteers between bouts of chaos, and swap contacts with a man from Egypt. Then I head back up the hill and out of Tarlabaşı, wondering how it will look on my next visit.