Tearing at Istanbul's heritage

Tearing at Istanbul's heritage


A handful of Istanbul’s longest-standing tradesmen are fighting to keep their slice of history alive in the city after a new regulation pushing gentrification may soon force their businesses to close down.

Their shops in the fashionable Beyoglu district, lined with Italianate edifices and served by a red vintage tram, have become a front in the battle over Istanbul's development that has provoked protests and polarised public opinion.

. ISTANBUL, Turkey. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Business is brisk at the 78-year-old apparel shop of Ilya Avramoglu, pictured above, one of the last minority-owned establishments on the historic Istiklal Avenue in central Istanbul.

Run by three generations of a Jewish family, the wood-paneled Kelebek Corset Shop, little changed since the 1930s, survived a racist mob that attacked non-Muslims a half-century ago, the subsequent decades of decline and a recent economic rebirth by keeping up with what women wear underneath.

Now, Avramoglu, 53, and a handful of other older businesses are fighting to preserve their heritage.

"We have always been determined to stay, but now our fate isn't in our hands,” said Avramoglu, who began working at the store when he was 18. “This law is our death sentence."

. ISTANBUL, Turkey. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Their struggle has pitted the heritage of Istanbul, founded by ancient Greeks as Byzantium and known for centuries as Constantinople after a Roman emperor, against President Tayyip Erdogan's vision of transforming the city of 15 million people into a modern global metropolis.

The Turkish Parliament amended the commercial code to allow landlords to eject tenants of 10 years or more without cause. The rule, which went into effect in July, scraps a tradition of renter-friendly laws, potentially hitting millions of businesses and residents.

While it does not target non-Muslim minorities such as Jews, Armenians and Greeks, whose numbers have fallen sharply in the past half century, members of these communities are among Istanbul's oldest tradesmen and are often long-term tenants, putting them at risk of eviction.

. ISTANBUL, Turkey. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Millions of people a week flock to Istiklal, making it one of Istanbul's hottest retail districts, and commercial rents have tripled in dollar terms in the past 10 years.

Reflecting a more prosperous Turkey, the 1.5-km (one mile) avenue increasingly looks like shopping districts from Barcelona to Berlin, peppered with McDonald's, Mango and other mid-range brands that are crowding out most indigenous merchants.

Saving Kelebek Corset is a rallying cry for activists and more than 2,000 supporters have signed Avramoglu's online petition asking Pope Francis to intervene and keep his shop, which belongs to a local Catholic church, at its historic Santa Maria spot.

. ISTANBUL, Turkey. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Some of Avramoglu's peers have given up the fight.

Apoyevmatini, Istanbul's last Greek-language daily newspaper, abandoned its offices in an Istiklal arcade above its historic printing press after 89 years. While it will keep publishing, it could no longer afford the rent and feared it could soon be evicted, said its editor, Mihail Vasiliadis.

. ISTANBUL, Turkey. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Still, Avramoglou, who looks after eight family members and has voluntarily increased the monthly rent of his 20-square-metre shop 12-fold since 2007, is determined to fight to the end.

“The lives of three generations of my family unfolded on Istiklal," he said. “Of course, one day this store must close. We Jews know about endings ... Still, we fight to avoid annihilation."