The transformation of Karaköy
Wilco Van HERPENBefore living in Turkey, whenever I visited Istanbul I would definitely pay a visit to Karaköy. It was a place that suited its name: Karaköy means “Dark village.” Although in the center of Istanbul, it was a place forgotten and neglected by many people. During the old times it used to be a place where you could find many minorities. Over time, it lost its “grandeur” and became a place for small enterprises. People were working hard, doing heavy work. Little workshops in which men, during summertime, were working there with sweat and oil stained shirts. During wintertime those men would wear sweaters full of holes. Young boys running from the warehouses to a client delivering the goods that had been bought. Man carrying heavy loads on their back. Life was hard those days. These kinds of pictures are more difficult to find nowadays. Karaköy has changed.
It must have been two or three years ago that this change started. Before, there were just one or two famous restaurants and that was about it. I remember being invited by an artist friend of mine to go out for dinner one night. She invited me to come over to a very nice place in Karaköy. That evening, I went and found it a bit difficult to find the right place; long dark roads, deserted back alleys without light and in some dark portals people doing shady business. I was surprised that a place that was so much alive during the day could be completely deserted during the evening time. I felt relieved when I left the narrow alleys behind me and found the main road again. 500 meters away, I saw a light shining and my hope grew again. Yes, this was it, Karaköy Lokantası. Turkish Sanat music was playing and long rows of tables covered with white linen filled the restaurant. The tables were filled with all different kinds of meze’s (Turkish appetizers), rakı glasses, jugs of cold water and ice coolers with big chunks of ice. It felt warm and cozy. All the guests in the Meyhane were in deep conversations with their friends; now and then a “şerefe” (cheers) rose up from one of the tables. Waiters in perfectly ironed white shirts were serving the guests. The food was great, the ambiance even better and it turned out to be a perfect evening. This was 12 years ago.
Not yet ‘discovered’
A meeting at my television channel also brought me to Karaköy. It was 2008, and Karaköy was not yet “discovered.” I had not had my breakfast so I stopped at a small bakery in the middle of Karaköy. There was a queue in front of the shop and people with big round plates filled with simit - (traditional round Turkish bread covered with sesame seeds, a bit like a bagel) - walk out the door. I am not in a hurry, wait patiently for my turn and look at the place. While one man hands over the simit another man takes the money. Two men constantly take the freshly baked simit out of the oven and fill the empty spaces with unbaked simit. The simit here is a legend; when you take a bite of the simit the outside is crispy and has a beautiful sesame taste. The inside, on the other hand, is that of soft fresh bread. Once you have tried the simit from Karaköy, it is difficult to like simit from another place.
A lot has changed since then. As I wrote before, Karaköy has changed a lot. Nowadays, Karaköy has transformed. Day and night, Karaköy has become a place that is very much alive. It gives me the feeling of Capetown in 1992. During that time, a new place opened called “the Waterfront.” It was an interesting combination of shipyards, bars, cafés, restaurants and shops. Activity everywhere; people fixing ships and next to it a very trendy restaurant, while a welder working on a boat, sparks jumping up from the pieces of metal that he tried to ‘stick’ together. As a neighbor, he had a shop selling fashion and jewelry. This was a perfect blend of life and gave incredible color to the whole area.
Darkness long gone
Karaköy has become a little bit like the Waterfront; everywhere there are nice, cozy restaurants, trendy bars and little boutiques. The darkness is long gone; this is the time of livelihood again for Karaköy. As the place in Istanbul where the big cruise ships drop anchor, you find many tourists walking around. With a guidebook or map in their hands, they discover the area. Istanbul Modern, galleries that sell jewelry like Selda Okutan, cafés where you can smoke Nargile (water pipe), churches like the Turkish Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Church and mosques; Karaköy is an adventure on its own.
Workers, artists, entrepreneurs, tourists; they gave new life to this neighborhood. I hope that Karaköy continues developing in this way. Normal daily life combined with places worthwhile to visit or have fun. This is what tourists want, this is what Istanbul needs. Let’s not spoil this beautiful place with another shopping mall, but keep Karaköy “boutique.”