Istanbul’s heart struggles to keep beating amid serious downturn

The once-popular heart of Istanbul is in demise. Shops along the famous Istiklal Avenue are closing down and the nightlife of Beyoglu has been silenced by over zealous municipal officials, terror attacks and dwindling numbers of tourists.

People walk in central Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue, the main shopping road of Istanbul, Monday, July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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ISTANBUL // At 82, Halil Dagli has been crafting high quality footwear by hand in his small shop on Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Avenue for 66 years, but the veteran cobbler is on the verge of hanging up his laces.

“If I were paying rent, I would close today. And I’m still thinking of closing. Since this morning I’ve only sold one pair of shoes!” Mr Dagli told The National over tea.

It was almost 6pm.

Mr Dagli is among the last of the esnaflar (tradesmen) on the city’s iconic pedestrian-only street. Built in the 19th century, Istiklal was once home to a host of foreign embassies during the Ottoman period that became consulates following the foundation of the Turkish Republic. It was closed off to traffic in the early 1990s, in an effort rejuvenate the area, which had declined into seedy dishevelment from the 1970s after most of its large Greek and Armenian population left the country following decades of persecution. Once a hub for pharmacies, butchers, optometrists and pastry shops, these establishments have disappeared amid rising rents. Fast food restaurants and name brand clothing retailers quickly moved in, forcing Mr Dagli to compete with Nike and New Balance.

But now even the big brand stores are closing down, prompting a wave of coverage in local media proclaiming the demise of the central district of Beyoglu, home to Istiklal Avenue.

If Mr Dagli – who cuts a gentlemanly figure with spectacles, slicked-back grey hair and a neatly trimmed moustache — decides to close, the street will lose one of the remaining stalwarts of its historic legacy of craftsmen. For 25 years, Mr Dagli was the cobbler of choice for Ismet Inonu, Turkey’s second president. His former boss Mahmut Soyman, the namesake of the tiny shop, made shoes for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic.

Beyoglu was until recently the heart of nightlife in Istanbul, but it has been steadily losing that status amid a drawn-out process that began in the summer of 2011 when the municipality, in a snap decision, rounded up the tables and chairs that lined the cafes and bars of the districts backstreets.

City officials claimed the tables were blocking traffic and pedestrians, but cafe employees claim the crackdown came after a car carrying president Recep Tayyip Erdogan became stuck on one narrow Asmalimescit street late in the evening.

The decision to remove them dealt a deadly blow to the vibe of the area.

Though some streets have managed to bring back the outdoor seating, things have not been the same since, according to Anglo-French musician Jack Butler, 32, a multi-instrumentalist who has earned a living playing jazz in Beyoglu’s bars and back alleys for more than five years.

“That was a bit of trauma and Beyoglu still hasn’t really recovered,” Mr Butler told The National. The neighbourhood of Asmalimescit, a small quarter within the district of Beyoglu, which was packed with hundreds of tables connected to a dense network of popular bar and restaurants, was hit the hardest. Many have since closed and the quarter is a shell of its former self.

Two years later, in 2013, protests over a plan to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks on top of Gezi Park, one of central Istanbul’s rare green spaces left Beyoglu literally under a cloud, after police used tear gas against the protesters. Patrons who had nothing to do with the uprisings and were just out for a night on the town were deeply disturbed. That damaged the district’s reputation for good, said Ocal Cetin, 34, manager of the popular bar and venue Peyote.

“After Gezi Park, Beyoglu got spooky. It became difficult to pass through and to spend time here, and it turned into something else entirely,” said Mr Cetin.

Peyote is among Istanbul’s most beloved venues, much sought after for showcasing local, independent music and its sultry terrace, where it was difficult to get a table after 9pm at weekends this time last year. But in 2016, there is empty seating available through to closing time.

“Peyote has the potential to attract a lot of European exchange students and Western tourists. The people we appeal to are not coming and that has directly affected us,” Mr Cetin said. It did not help that the venue is located just around the corner from the an ISIL suicide bomb attack in the middle of Istiklal this March, which killed five people.

Istiklal and Beyoglu’s impressive array of classic European architecture has been marred by the inundation of hotels and shopping malls, projects that have been encouraged and applauded by the ruling Justice and Development Party-led municipality. As the number of locals and Westerners alike has dwindled, tourists from the Arabian Gulf become the key demographic in the district, and a handful of baklava shops and perfume counters have opened up that seem to exclusively cater to these visitors. They are among the only businesses that are booming.

The street itself is in poor condition, a depressing hotch-potch of unconvincing cobblestone and patches of asphalt that have been repeatedly paved over. The new hotels are mostly vacant and the taps at many bars and clubs have run dry. The city’s entertainment hub has shifted to the Asian-side district of Kadikoy, where a staggering number of cafes and bars have opened up in the past couple of years. Kadikoy, which flanks the Sea of Marmara, was for years known as a calm and laid-back alternative to Beyoglu. It can no longer lay claim to that status.

In spite of it all, Mr Butler, the musician, is optimistic that Istanbul’s wounded heart can recover. “We are all hoping Beyoglu nightlife is too big to fail and we are waiting for the annual wave of thirsty students to fuel the club economy,” he said.

But for Mr Dagli, the elderly cobbler, the once-cosmopolitan, chic district he knew so well is long gone.

“Beyoglu is finished,” he said adamantly.