Whenever I visited my grandmother in Istanbul, Aksaray, I simply had to check out the scene on Istiklal Caddesi.
Mostly, I walked there. Back then there was no tram and I didn’t really fancy taking the bus. So I walked past Istanbul University, where my mother studied, then either through Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar) or past the Sultan Ahmet Cami (Blue Mosque) and Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). I’d then walk down to Galata Bridge and take the second oldest subway in the world – Tünel – from Karaköy – Beyoğlu to the lower part of the Istiklal Caddesi, and finally walk slowly – savouring what there was to discover.
I had endless amounts of time, and it got really interesting when I embarked on my voyages of reconnaissance, so to speak, exploring the various shops, the endless passage-ways and endless side-streets, where there was always something new to discover. I found dollar-shops, junk-shops, bought a few stray vinyls for cheap or found a couple used books, old comic-books and sundry curiosities.
You could meet with friends in alternative rooftop cafes with incredible views of Istanbul – an Istanbul that I had never known as a teenager.
It was a lively cultural scene of artists, musicians, bands, concerts, partially illuminated in Fatih Akin’s film Crossing the Bridge, but richer still musically. I mean there was really good music -gigs that drew a crowd of more than a hundred spectators, come to listen to acoustic sounds with a punk attitude.
Back then there was a record shop called Kod Müzik in the Atlas Passage. Everyone who listened to underground music from Swans to Nirvana couldn’t miss this place.
Back then the record stores in Istanbul were much more than just shops; they were meeting points for artists and like-minded individuals. The labels that put out cassettes and CDs were idealists for whom music meant more than mere profit. Everyone went to Istiklal Caddesi. And I mean everyone! It was, and still is, the center of Istanbul. Weekends millions of people wandered up and down the street, popping into bars and clubs. At certain hours there were even pedestrian traffic jams.
I also had many a legendary night there. I would put on my first hip-hop concert with Ceza in Peyote, an alternative cult joint that still exists, but at another location. The concert was supposed to start at noon; a couple hundred people had shown up. And so we crowded the door with our fans, clamoring to get in. But the venue was shut. For hours we couldn’t get in touch with the organizers, till finally someone called from prison, saying that the previous night some kabadayılar (pseudo mafia show-offs) had occupied the club, pushing everyone around, till the police had to be called. As usual, the cops arrested everyone and closed the club until further notice. We then moved on to the Asian side, to Kadıköy, because we knew there was a break dance battle taking place, and we might be able to put on our concert there. So we went over to Kadıköy, explained what had happened to us, and took up the mics – and had a blast.
Once in 2012 I had a performance with Born From Pain and Ayben in the former Dorock, in which the audience literally freaked out. That’s he way it goes with a Turkish crowd. I can only say, that attending a concert in Turkey is something that shouldn’t be missed.
After a concert, a visit to a club or bar, you went in the morning hours to eat midye dolma, a Turkish specialty made from spicy rice served in a mussel, heading back home well- satisfied.
It was nice back then and I wish it could have continued. But in the time being everything changed on Istiklal; the alternative clubs, bars, cafes, shops have almost all shut their doors; and there’s no longer a clubland like it was, replete with outdoor street concerts and the like.
The crowd is no longer the same. Everything on the street is now geared towards tourists. And although it is still a hub, you rarely see locals enjoying themselves there or even visiting the venues. Many of my relations loathe going to Istiklal and avoid it when possible; I only go there because my bank is there – to run errands.
That isn’t to say there is nothing to discover. There are still some very special places, such as the Büyük Londra Hotel or Cicek Pasaji which you should definitely check out. However, the life has moved on, leaving behind a mood of tristesse.
The reasons for this are certainly many, and it would be wrong to reduce it to just one factor. One of them is of course, gentrification; the rents have shot up, and more and more clubs and bars just couldn’t stick it out any longer. Some say that the state has pushed up the rents to squeeze out the alternative locales and street life.
Certainly there was a conscious decision to circumscribe the public space, though many small locales already had trouble surviving in the face of the prohibitions on the sale of alcohol. Looking back, I remember one of the first prohibitions on alcohol took effect at a fountain were young people used to gather and drink beer on the weekend.
Then it came suddenly, boom, boom, boom – concessions withdrawn or no longer given. The reasoning was that the youth was being endangered, which of course is bullshit.
Then came Gezi, and the punitive measures implemented against the locales and hotels which supported the demonstrators. And so the frontlines became more and more sharply drawn till Beyoğlu – actually a place for all political persuasions – became the site of a political power struggle. Ironically Istiklal Caddesi translates in English as independence street. However long before Gezi, the district of Beyoğlu and the neighborhood of Taksim were places where demonstrations were traditionally held: e.g. May 1st, so conflicts were not uncommon. But now it was suddenly a question of who owned the center of Istanbul?
Today Istikal definitely doesn’t belong to me anymore. I don’t feel at home there any longer. It no longer suits my disposition, my tastes and attitude. People like myself have been pushed out because we were seen as a nuisance.
On the other hand, everything may change again. Who knows, really? My mother now lives in Kadıköy. I love Kadıköy and have always loved it. It is in a way comparable to Kreuzberg (by the way, Berlin and Istanbul are partner cities, and Kadıköy and Kreuzberg are partner districts). Some of the nightlife has shifted there. However, it was always a district for alternative lifestyles.
Now, if I want to get away for a bit, I hop on my bike and cycle from Fenerbahçe along the sea to Kadıköy Çarşı.
It takes less time and I feel I am using less Co2.
By Volkan Türeli