Hood: Pera. Writer: Anlam Arslanoğlu. Photos: Deniz Sabuncu.
The idea that if I lived in Pera I would feel like an Istanbulite began to form when I came to Istanbul for a French theater festival in middle school. We spent our days at Sainte Pulchérie and I can't tell you how impressed I was. Thanks to these festivals, which I continued to attend in high school, Beyoğlu became an obsession for me. Instead of a prospective future in France, I decided to move to Istanbul for college to be a part of the cultural community that I had read about in ‘Radikal’ Newspaper. Later on, I lived in France and England on different occasions, for work, and for pleasure, but when I came back Pera was my refuge, part of my identity. I think today's Pera is a subjective and fictional space that we create in our imagination. There are different boundaries and definitions of Pera, nourished by memories, what we read and watch, accompanied by our daily life experiences. One thing is for certain: Pera is not a district of Beyoğlu in its current bureaucratic definition.
Anlam Arslanoğlu, in Aheste
A multicultural and tasteful residential center
I think the real Pera is the multicultural and tasteful residential center created by non-Muslims during the Ottoman Empire. It can be considered a city within a city. Settlement in this area, known as the ‘other side' of the Golden Horn, began before Constantinople. It was named Pera after it was frequented by Genoese and Venetian merchants, and by the 13th century, it had become a Genoese colony. Later on, with its rise as a trade center, the region’s population grew. Embassies were established, and churches and minority schools were built.
Pera, as a European and developed neighbourhood of Istanbul, experienced its most glorious era between 1870-1923. However, it began to decline with the World War I. The Wealth Tax, the events of September 6-7, the Cyprus issue, and then the deportation of the last remaining Greek citizens in 1964 closed this golden age; Istanbul's most cosmopolitan neighbourhood disappeared in a great tragedy, and its values and knowledge vanished along with it.
In the streets
And then there is the old-new Pera, which I experienced in the late 1990s-early 2000s. Istiklal Street, especially the section from Galatasaray High School to Tünel, was an oasis where I could be 'me' for the first time. Here, I found a community where I felt I belonged, a sanctuary that made me feel anything was possible. Edgy and dirty, but full of life and passion. A neighbourhood of misfits where anyone or anything can change your life in an instant, where brave people open up places that change the city's fate.
Even though I betrayed it by moving abroad from time to time, I have felt like I belong to Pera since I moved to Gümüşsuyu at 18 years old. Frankly, I don't question the definition of this circle too much. From Taksim to Karaköy, Cihangir to Galata, all these hoods are part of my home, like intertwined matryoshka dolls.
Inhabitants in the streets
Then and now: Pera
Pera was a 'privileged' neighbourhood from its inception. A gathering place for non-Muslim minorities and embassies that were not allowed in the Historical Peninsula, it became the center of fashion, commerce, and nightlife as Istanbul's gateway to Europe. Therefore, in my opinion, what is happening here is not exactly gentrification, but the hollowing out of Pera as it changes hands; its transformation into a series of movie sets, a kitsch postcard that will appeal to the tastes of tourists from various regions.
With the birth of the Republic of Turkey came the deliberate destruction of Pera and, of course, the minorities who made it famous. This is the historic story that affects me the most. On the roads I pass by every day, I remember the longing and pain of Greek, Jewish, Armenian, Levantine people, and many others who have been displaced from their homes and belongings. Nevertheless, Pera's ability to preserve its magic, embrace subcultures that cannot find shelter in different parts of the city, and rise from its ashes gives us hope despite everything. Walking around Pera is like visiting an archaeological site - civilisations collapse, but new ones are built on their ruins.
I think it is human nature to long for the past, for youth. Inevitably, I find myself unable to accept this transformation and yearning for the old days of Pera. But I’m afraid this feeling is not simply the product of an aging perspective, one that cannot accept progress and rejects change. It also stems from the deliberate destruction of Pera and the lifestyle it represents by those who cannot tolerate it.
As with everything else in Turkey, ups and downs are experienced simultaneously. On the one hand, we are seeing an incredible cultural degeneration on Istiklal Street. The places where we have accumulated dozens of memories are closing down and turning into shopping malls or chain cafes. As a result, the city's memory itself is being destroyed. On the other hand, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Heritage team is doing significant work in restoring precious buildings like Botter Apartments and St. Pierre Han which had been abandoned. New galleries like Martch Art Project are coming alive, and concert halls are reopening their doors.
St. Antoine Church
Is Pera nostalgic, artistic or literary?
Pera is the heart of Istanbul, influencing and nurturing every discipline of art. Cinema, literature, music, theater, culinary and visual arts, fashion, crafts, and more are all entwined in Pera. When Jean Cocteau came to Istanbul in 1949, he staged sold-out French experimental theater performances at the Atlas Cinema for days, chatted with hundreds of students every day, and signed books. In his book Maalesh, Cocteau writes that the audience and press in Istanbul understood him even better than those in Paris, and that the youth of Turkey gave him hope. This seems like a dream that perhaps will never come back.
Following a period in which Pera's original inhabitants were displaced from their homes and jobs by internal migration, turning it into a cultural desert, new cultural momentum was achieved through the initiatives of a few daring people in the 1990s-2000s. While Istanbul became the European Capital of Culture in 2010, this new beginning came to a sudden and symbolic end with the removal of the tables in Asmalımescit. The fact that alcohol brands were granted the right to sponsor events in the area added salt to the wound.
Towards evening on Istiklal
In the period following the Gezi movement, even my friends stopped coming to Pera, and with the increase of terrorist attacks, foreigners also withdrew. And of course, endless economic crises and the pandemic have caused many more venues to shut down. Most of the art spaces supported by conglomerates have been preserved, but their programs had to return to more national or "risk-free" content.
We lost cinemas, independent art initiatives, concert venues, not to mention Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM). Today, although art and art lovers are no longer the priority of those who control Pera, there are still oases to breathe. I am sure this region will regain its free spirit once this temporary occupation is over.
Occupation views in Pera
What impact does Pera have on art spaces?
Pera has always been Istanbul's gateway to the world; due to its proximity to the ports, it was the international, social and intellectual heart of the city. The fact that many museums and galleries are still here today is a part of this historical legacy. As someone who has worked at İKSV, Istanbul Modern, and SALT, of course, I can't be too objective, but I do think these institutions could do much more for the neighbourhood.
When we opened SALT Beyoğlu, I stood at its door for a week. I invited curious passersby and said, 'This place is free and open to everyone!' They would run away in fear. Foreigners would come in, excitedly asking questions without waiting for an invitation. It is not enough to establish these institutions and open their doors, we should also build the culture around it. Nevertheless, the presence of cultural institutions in Pera prevents the area from being completely handed over to hotels and chains, and to some extent, ensures the preservation of Pera’s architectural heritage and lifestyle.
In front of Meşher
Unfortunately, local governments in Istanbul have not taken a systematic and bold approach to public art for a long time. The Beyoğlu Culture Trail Project might have been a promising development in this respect, but it was very superficial and sloppy in its implementation. Beautiful public works of art are also subject to vandalism, such as Ayşe Erkmen's Open Column sculpture in Tünel or Salih Acar's Flying Birds in the Odakule arcade.
Although the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has launched a new and participatory initiative in this area under the title of “Beyoğlu Senin”, it remains to be seen if both the central government and the district municipality will allow the implementation of what has been planned.
Art on the streets - you can see it too if you walk on Dibek Street looking upwards
Living in Pera
For me, being a local means feeling that I belong to that neighbourhood, even if I don't live there all the time. The neighbourhood is a place where I know I can be myself, where I feel good. It’s a refuge where I am sure that if I get into trouble I will always find a friend or a stranger who will help me, but it is also a playground that always offers new discoveries.
I got a better reading of Pera by walking its backstreets day and night, chatting with shopkeepers, and experiencing its nightspots. I follow a similar path wherever I go. It is as difficult to characterize Pera’s residents as it is to define its boundaries. There are so many different subcultures and communities within its borders, but the Pera crowd that I see myself as a part of has an intimate connection, at least that's the feeling I get. Most of us work in creative industries. Even if we don't see each other much - or even if we are strangers - living or working here creates a strange sense of belonging and solidarity. Despite everything, if there is one thing we who insist on living in Pera have in common, I guess it is that we stand a bit outside the circle. Deviants maybe.