A Day in Istanbul’s Karaköy Neighborhood

Deniz Duru places a small blue plastic key into a slot in the leg of a walnut table. An automated voice utters a command in German as the subtle whir of a motor begins to push the heavy tabletop upwards, revealing a computer screen within that slowly moves into a 90-degree position. ‘There’s nothing yet like this in the world and I’m working on getting the patent,’ the designer says as the automated DJ table returns to rest. Duru’s studio-workshop 333km is one of the many realisations of entrepreneurial dreams in Karaköy, a historic neighbourhood that stretches out from Galata Bridge at the edge of the Bosphorus on Istanbul’s European side. ‘One of the greatest things about Karaköy is its energy,’ says Duru who opened 333km six years ago. ‘People from all over the world just wander into my atelier, especially during the design biennial.’

The first architectural development to take place in what is now known as Karaköy was due to its proximity to the water. During the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the mid-6th century, Karaköy was the site of fortifications.The neighbourhood became a centre of commerce after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, thanks to its active harbour. Karaköy’s mosques, hammams and bedesten (covered bazaars) were joined by restaurants, inns and confectioners in the second half of the 19th century, to meet the tastes of the Levantines occupying a nearby neighbourhood in Beyoğlu. In the 1990s, however, the area’s producers and retailers moved to neighbourhoods like Bayrampaşa and Maltepe, leaving Karaköy economically stagnant and architecturally abandoned.

Now, the neighbourhood’s labryinthe streets are regularly declared as ‘trendy Karaköy’, with its studentfilled cafes, contemporary art galleries and an avant garde entrepreneurial spirit, such as Deniz Duru and his DJ table. It’s a classic tale of regeneration: low rental rates drew young artists and architects to the area and independent businesses soon followed. The opening of Istanbul Modern, grand dame of the city’s contemporary art boom, sealed Karaköy’s reputation as an Istanbul ‘must-visit’, along with its art-covered streets that lie behind the beautifully tiled 1911 Customs House and Turkish Maritime Lines building in parallel to the waterfront.

On the corner of Ali Paşa Değirmeni street, customers sit on the pastel green chairs that line the smart exterior of Fil bookshop. It’s become a regular spot for creatives since opening in June 2015 – its shelves are filled with photobooks, monographs, zines and self-published books and it often hosts artist talks and workshops. On a nearby street in a converted former workshop, Dandin bakery serves up kahvaltı and menemen alongside earl grey and lime cake, while Karaköy Lokantası is one of the area’s most popular restaurants, housed in the former Estonian Consulate.

Just around the corner from the 16th century bathhouse Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, itself recently restored, is the menswear boutique Bey Karaköy, another sign of Karaköy’s regeneration. ‘It’s been exactly two years since we opened. We really liked how Karaköy has a historical as well as touristic side,’ says store clerk Ahmet Yaman, while The Weeknd plays in the background. ‘We wanted to create a space that, unlike the rest of the city, is very minimal and simple. We’re kind of creating a better world for ourselves and our customers, who sometimes just drop by to have coffee and read some magazines.’

Apart from being an escape within a city that’s known for its chaos, Karaköy is also a reminder of a multi-ethnic past where various cultural and religious communities existed in close proximity. While young people sip their flat whites at one of the many cafés, worshippers make their way up six flights of stairs to pray at the Aya Panteleymon Russian Orthodox Church, built into the top floor of a historic building in the 19th century. A handful of other Orthodox churches can be found in the neighbourhood, including Meryem Ana Church, which was built by Istanbul’s Crimean Orthodox community in 1583. Karaköy’s name is even believed to derive from that of the Karaite Jews who populated the area in the Byzantine era. ‘Karai Köy’ in Turkish, which translates to the ‘village of the Karaite’, is presumed to be the root of Karaköy’s name.

Across the T1 tramway line that carries passengers over the historic Galata Bridge is Karaköy’s other side. Among the old hardware stores along the streets of Perşembe Pazarı is the Kurşunlu Han, a former 16th century commercial caravanserai built by renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The once active handicraft workshops inside its alcoves are now being rented out and renovated by artists looking for ateliers with historical value. One of the most striking is the showroom and office of glass artist Yasemin Aslan Bakiri, a space with industrial lighting and mirrored partitions that’s currently being renovated and is due to open this spring.

‘It’s much more beautiful now,’ says Bert Nizam, who has been working in the Han for 43 years as a repairman. ‘Back in the day you couldn’t manage with all the dirt. Now the place is full of artists and the Han has become more precious because they’re renovating their spaces.’

Along Bankalar Caddesi, once the financial centre of the Ottoman Empire, and past the famous winding neo-baroque Camondo Steps is Schneidertempel Art Gallery, located in a converted late 19th century synagogue. One of the three synagogues established by the area’s Ashkenazi Jews, Schneidertempel gained new purpose in 1998 when it was turned into an art centre with a main focus on the work of contemporary caricature artists. ‘The area has changed so much since we first opened,’ says Handan Önel, the art centre’s manager, ‘but it’s thanks to this development. People have started to really explore the area and that’s good for us because a lot of visitors discover our art centre on a whim while wandering around the neighbourhood.’

As one of Perşembe Pazarı’s oldest residents, Levon Dallaryan is, however, not so convinced by the changes that are rapidly altering Karaköy’s every corner, as the imminent Galataport project looks set to turn the neighbourhood into a touristic area. Having arrived in the area around 1961, first working as a salesman then opening Mutfak Dili with his wife, the Armenian-Turkish restaurant owner is skeptical about the many historic structures that have now been converted into hotels. ‘The more than 120-year-old building that housed Banca di Roma has been turned into a hotel, among many other historically significant buildings. But the thing I wonder is during this time, when tourists are no longer coming to Istanbul, who are they building these hotels for?’ Dallaryan looks at the walls, which are covered floor to ceiling with photos of tourists who used to dine on Mutfak Dili’s delicious esnaf lokantası dishes. ‘I remember when I first started working here, we took the ferry from the Asian side to Karaköy. No one would sit in anyone else’s spot because everyone knew each other. We’d drink our tea and ride the ferry to work together. Nowadays, I don’t know anyone and I hardly greet anyone. I think what I miss most about the past is friendship.’

Brownbook, January-February, 2017 

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