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Managing the difficult balance between tourism and authenticity: Kumkapı

ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News | 7/26/2008 12:00:00 AM | Marlene Schäfers

The central square of Kumkapı, - a pedestrian zone closed to traffic since 1989 – is lined with numerous fish restaurants, which, in the summer, occupy the sidewalks with their white-clothed tables, vying for customers. Interspersed are shops selling fishing equipment and, a little toward the nearby Marmara Sea, Istanbul’s main fish market is to be found, where fish is sold wholesale to fish mongers and restaurants throughout the entire city.

In the evening hours when the sun is about to set and Istanbul's swallows glide chittering through the air, Akman Üzüm sits in front of his shop in Kumkapı, knotting a fishing net with professional hands.

Around him, life is starting to become busy at this hour of the day – the numerous fish restaurants are preparing for visitors, both Turks and tourists, expected after sunset. Pavements are being swept, and tables set out with white tablecloths and decorated with large flower bouquets. “Kumkapı is the center of three things: Entertainment, fish and nets,” said the net maker, whose shop sells professional fishing equipment to fishermen along the Turkish coasts – from Istanbul to as far as Cyprus.

And, indeed, the central square of Kumkapı, with its main thoroughfare and side streets – a pedestrian zone closed to traffic since 1989 – is lined with numerous fish restaurants, which, in the summer, occupy the sidewalks with their white-clothed tables, vying for customers. Interspersed are shops selling fishing equipment and, a little toward the nearby Marmara Sea, on the other side of the suburban train line, Istanbul's main fish market is to be found, where fish is sold wholesale to fish mongers and restaurants throughout the entire city.

“Because of the proximity to the fish market, the fish sold in Kumkapı's restaurants is the freshest fish you can get in Turkey,” said Mehmet Yazıcı, owner of the “Okyanus Fish Restaurant” and head of the association of Kumkapı's restaurant and shop owners. The association, which he heads together with Kemal Duranoğlu, has played a decisive role in the shaping of the district as it appears today. “Kumkapı has long since been a place of traditional Turkish meyhanes, but in the early 1990s it experienced an incredible explosion in demand. At that time, there was no “Nevizade” yet – Kumkapı was a “first.” It became the first location to combine good food with entertainment and music, and the first place in Istanbul where restaurant tables were moved out and onto the pavement. The increase in demand was also linked to the increase in the tourism sector, especially tourism from Russia in the mid-1990s.”  When speaking of the rise of Kumkapı's fish restaurants, Mehmet Yazıcı hints vaguely at the fact that this sudden increase in demand was not all for the better – the immense demand led to a sharp increase in prices while quality decreased, and pick-pocketing became a serious problem in the area. As a response, the association became active, in 1998, in order to change this trend, working to both increase security and the quality of food, as well as representing the interests of Kumkapı's restaurant owners to the municipal authorities. Today, 10 years after the beginning of the association's active work, the satisfied tone of its head points not only to the success of these measures – indeed, the quarter's restaurant owners have been able to find the delicate balance between commercial tourism and “authenticity,” while catering, at the same time, to foreigners and local residents.

The other Kumkapı

Moreover, Kumkapı's association of restaurant owners works for more than its own direct interests. Since 2000 it has served free meals to Istanbul's elderly, homeless and street children, in cooperation with other nongovernmental organizations. On six days each year, a total of 2,000 people come to enjoy a dinner, which in their daily lives they are worlds away from. In organizing these philanthropic activities, the association might have been inspired by the reality to be encountered in Kumkapı, just beyond the neat and clean pedestrian area – another Kumkapı, where most people can almost never afford an evening at one of the white-clothed tables set out in the midst of their neighborhood. This other Kumkapı is inhabited by a colorful mix of people coming from all over Turkey, the Caucasus and the Central Asian Turkic Republics, as well as from Arab and African countries, where some having settled permanently with their families, while others are here on a temporary basis. Row houses of the 19th century line many of the narrow, cobbled lanes, on which children play and women chat in front of their houses. While most are in a desolate state today, these houses are witnesses to Kumkapı's past as a district of Istanbul's Armenian and Greek middle-classes of the late 19th century; where its residents realized the dream of their own, even though modest, of owning homes with little backyard gardens.The settlement of Istanbul's Greek and Armenian communities in this part of the city goes back as far as 1453, when the Ottomans systematically repopulated Constantinople after the conquest with both Muslim and non-Muslim communities from all over the empire. Kumkapı, since then, has been dominated by Armenians and Greeks. Over the centuries, the quarter's population retained this ethnic-linguistic characteristic – in fact, as late as the 1950s, Kumkapı was still known as an Armenian quarter. Starting in the 1960s, however, Kumkapı's Armenian population began to decrease, with people moving abroad to Europe or America or simply to other quarters of the city, like Samatya, Yeniköy or Bakırköy.

Multi-ethnic past of Kumkapı

Today, the various churches – Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Syriac – as well as the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey, which are situated in Kumkapı, immediately remind the visitor of this multi-ethnic past. In some ways, the quarter has even regained its reputation as an Armenian quarter. Yet, the majority of Armenians residing in Kumkapı today are immigrants from Armenia, while of the “original” Armenian population, only a few individuals still call Kumkapı their home. Among these, are the brothers Ardaş and Manuel, who were born and grew up in Kumkapı. Now, in their 70s, they spend their entire days in the local tea house, playing backgammon and listening to the chitchat of the younger men. Both still bachelors, at sunset they leave the talk and backgammon behind, walking down the cobbled back street, side by side, until they disappear around the corner, returning to their home. The past is a topic they prefer not to talk about – small people as we are, they say, doing different jobs with the local craftsmen, what do we have to tell? Being Armenian does not hold an important part in their life or identity – the Armenian language they have long forgotten, and there is nothing that would connect Ardaş and Manuel to the immigrants from Armenia of recent years. The fishing equipment seller, Arto, another of the “original” Armenians of Kumkapı, and of the same generation as Ardaş and Manuel, has a very similar story to tell. While his wife still speaks and reads Armenian, he has forgotten the language. Yet, when talking of the old Kumkapı of his childhood, his voice takes on a melancholy tone. “There was no road for cars along the coast, then, as the entire coast was full of the little boats for fishermen.” He regrets that almost all Greeks and Armenians have left the quarter; in his eyes, this has meant a decline as it paved the way for the settlement of poor immigrants from Turkey's East, Armenia and the Asian Turkic Republics. Arto, himself, now lives in Bakırköy and underlines, resolutely: “Even if someone would give me a house, I would never live here.”The Greek and Armenian Kumkapı of the Ottoman and early Republican times has long vanished, with only a few representatives left today. In its place is a new constellation of immigrants and refugees, side by side with a thriving culinary and amusement center, catering to Istanbul's middle classes that has emerged. And, which form this constellation will be able to take on, whether it will be able to make up a mosaic in which the different parts complement each other, only the future will tell.

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