Demolishing the past

Demolishing the past

Since I moved to Istanbul over a decade ago, I have lived on the Asian side near the Marmara Sea in a neighborhood that used to be dotted with summer houses and where the streets are still lined with mature trees. Appropriately, my street was called “Plaj Yolu” as it ended on the seaside where back in the 1960s there used to be a public place for swimming. Some time ago I had met an old Rum – a Greek Orthodox Turkish citizen – who told me that he used to keep his herd of sheep on his plot of land on my very street until the late 1960s.

The street remained more or less the same for the last decade. The buildings, mostly apartment blocks from the 1970s, did not change much and neither did the residents. I came to know most of them, at least by sight.

When I had to move out one year ago, to make way for the owner, who wanted to move back to his home, I was deeply sad. Not only because I was moving out from my first place of residence in Istanbul, but because I knew that the old street was on its last breath.

Already they were strong signs of it. Three years ago, the end part of the street nearest to the sea suddenly changed. During a summer demolition operation, large marble- and metal-fronted apartment blocks replaced the moderate low buildings and high security gates hid the new residents from public sight. Drivers wiping their masters’ limousines were now a common site in the early mornings when you wanted to take a stroll toward the seaside. We all knew that it was only a matter of a short time before the sea of change would drown the rest of the street and destroy the old for the sake of the “luxury” new.

 So when I actually left my old apartment one year ago, I secretly said farewell to a corner of Istanbul life that was about to be lost. 

I was right. The surreal craze of demolition entered my old neighborhood soon after I moved out and remains there since. Huge lorries are now blocking the old cobbled street carrying debris from old buildings while huge lit-up cranes dominate the sky like huge guillotines.  An enormous hole at the top of the street is all that remains from the building next to my old apartment block. Howling excavating machines and huge cranes swallowed its four floors as well as the old corner “şarkuteri” on the ground floor, where Mehmet Bey used to display proudly his whisky and wine bottles in the shop window against the bright sun. By the end of the summer the high-rise slated to be erected on that corner will have hid all the sun that used to brighten my kitchen and starve the three mulberry trees that touched my window.

I was lucky with my new home. At least this is what I thought one year ago. It was very near my old street, an old street again lined with mature trees and slightly newer apartment blocks. From my study window on the seventh floor, I could gaze at the same sea side and look even further to the areas of Maltepe and Kartal. An old Catholic Church and a converted monastery at the end of the street hidden behind a high stone wall reminded me that this is a place where Rums and Armenians once lived alongside the old Istanbul families in beautiful wooden “konak” houses. Some Rums are still here and you can see them gathering in the old Orthodox Church of Ioannis Chrissostomos near the seaside.

But I soon realized that it was temporary. For the last few months the monster of demolition has crept toward our area and is closing in. Now this generally quiet neighborhood has been assaulted by hordes of machines and men whose job is to make decades-old buildings disappear in a day; and then, with similar anxiety and speed, to replace them with homogeneous Y-Tong faceless structures of overpriced comfortable living. My view over the seaside is now disappearing by the day as a white “gateau-like” building is rapidly rising before my eyes, without mercy, as if a theater curtain is being pulled down at the end of the performance – a beautiful performance.

It is a feeling of claustrophobia, of isolation, of gradually losing your sight, losing your memory, losing your history. It is some kind of death, but here it is called “good living.”