Gentrification raises Turkish tensions

A gang attacks art lovers at gallery openings after a flight of galleries, bars and restaurants to cheaper, and often traditionally conservative areas.

Sinem Yoruk,owner of Elipsis Gallery,poses in her office on Bogazkesen Street.
Kerem Uzel for The National?
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ISTANBUL // Art lovers had prepared for a big night in Istanbul, Europe's latest hot spot for both locals and visitors. Five art galleries in the increasingly fashionable neighbourhood of Tophane opened their new seasons on a warm September evening, and hundreds of people were strolling through the exhibitions or enjoying a cigarette or drink on the street outside.

But suddenly, between 30 and 50 men attacked the guests, moving from one gallery to the next, injuring five people and smashing windows. "They came out of nowhere and started hitting people," Sinem Yoruk, the owner of one of the galleries, Elipsis, said in her office on the main street of Tophane last week. "They had sticks and pepper spray and frozen oranges. It was completely organised." In Turkey's fiercely polarised political scene, the Tophane incident quickly became part of the persistent confrontation between the religiously conservative government in Ankara and secularists, who often accuse Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, of following a secret Islamist agenda.

Some early news reports said Islamists protesting against the consumption of alcohol in the galleries were behind the attack. But interviews with gallery owners and locals in Tophane suggested the reasons for the violence run deeper. And those reasons are not so much connected to religion as to the problems of an urban upheaval underway in the Turkish metropolis, a sprawling city of at least 12 million people.

As Turkey's biggest city develops into a global centre - attracting millions of visitors every year with its vibrancy and its unique mixture of the old and the new - residents of the city centre face surging prices and rents with many old downtown buildings being modernised to cater to a new clientele. A one-room flat that rented for 300 Lira (Dh760) a month before renovation can cost three times as much after renovation, according to emlakkulisi.com, a real-estate website. As a consequence, some bars, restaurants and art galleries move into cheaper, and often traditionally conservative areas such as Tophane, which is near the European shore of the Bosphorus, a neighbourhood of small traders and workers, many from Turkey's east, near the European shore of the Bosphorus.

Changes such as these make tensions between longtime residents and newcomers almost inevitable in big cities worldwide. In Istanbul, despite its size and large population, community bonds are strong in many neighbourhoods. Some quarters go back hundreds of years. The name Tophane, which roughly means cannonball warehouse, harkens back to the Ottoman Empire when it was a centre for the production of cannons and other weapons.

Ms Yoruk's gallery opened in Tophane six months ago, after she had to leave her former space because of a steep rise in rent. "We are also victims of gentrification," she said. Ms Yoruk, 33, is a Turk who moved to Istanbul six years ago after spending much of her life in London, where she also witnessed the dislocation gentrification can bring to a city. "Maybe the change happens too quickly here," she said.

On the night of the incident, police in Tophane arrested seven people, who were later released. During the attacks, Ms Yoruk sheltered about 100 guests from other galleries inside her own, which was safer because it is on the third floor, and called for police protection before she sent them home. The situation has remained calm since then, but plainclothes policemen still keep an eye on the main street to make sure similar violence does not erupt again.

Tophane locals told Turkish media that the attack was set off by gallery guests who refused to make room for a local woman on her way through the crowd outside one gallery. Others said guests insulted conservative Muslims in the neighbourhood by telling them to "go to Iran". Huseyin Dorman, a community leader, insisted that people in the neighbourhood were not against change, or against art or people with different lifestyles.

"There is the Istanbul Modern down there and the French Street up there," he said, referring to Istanbul's biggest museum for modern art, across the street from Tophane, and to a nearby street filled with bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. "There has never been any trouble there." Sitting in a traditional teahouse near a mosque only 100 metres from the Non art gallery, where the attack started, Mr Dorman said a number of new bars and galleries meant more crowds and more noise at night in what was basically a residential neighbourhood.

"There is one American bar here with noise until four o'clock in the morning." He rejects all forms of violence, but the newcomers should be more aware of the lifestyle of ordinary people of Tophane. "Of course we respect them," he said about the guests of galleries and bars. "But is it a one-way street?" Two days after the attack, Ertugrul Gunay, Turkey's culture minister, visited Tophane and told both sides to calm down. "You must not enforce your lifestyle from Anatolia on people here," he said, addressing the conservative residents of the neighbourhood, home to people from rural Turkey. "On the other hand, you have to respect the customs and traditions of people," he added for the newcomers.

Sylvia Kouvali, the owner of Rodeo, another gallery in Tophane, agreed with the minister. "We should really think about what we may have done wrong."