Eminönü's fish sellers and Istanbul's changing reality

These fish sellers started to be featured the "must-visit places" lists of foreign travel books. How can I explain this—is it the irresistible charm of populism, Orientalism or kitsch?

Thirty years ago, when we were in university and craved seafood, we used to go the Eminönü area of Istanbul, known among other things for its fish sandwich (balık ekmek) vendors. As cash-strapped students, that was the only seafood we could afford. But back then, the area wasn't that crowded, and fish sandwiches were sold from ordinary boats.

A lot has changed since then. Now there are many more boats. The boats got bigger, got Ottoman-style wooden roofs, and were needlessly painted in bright colors so as to turn them into sultanate-lookalike boats. Fish sellers now also sport fez hats reminiscent of the same era.

The crowds in Eminönü also grew in size. "Grew" is actually an understatement: they turned into masses of people, all waiting in line to eat cheap fish. These fish sellers started to be featured the "must-visit places" lists of foreign travel books. How can I explain this—is it the irresistible charm of populism, Orientalism or kitsch? Yet there is also widespread poverty, just like during our student years.

Two feelings collide: first, my architecture educated-mind. Second, my belief in the spontaneity of daily life.

The former values organization, the design and allocation of spaces where people can rest and walk, letting the people be close to the sea, and setting standards for the establishment of livable spaces. The important term here is "standards."

On the other hand, I cannot stop myself from thinking that the place evolved by itself. People like to spend time there, and one cannot stop them from gathering. One cannot tell them not to eat fish there.

It has been said that the Eminönü fishermen do not fit the touristic view of the area. We hear that the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) is preparing a master plan for the area. But what if this is Istanbul's reality?

There is an area behind the Eminönü mosque where pet animals like birds and fish are sold in unsanitary conditions. Should we erase that too?

What about the Hanlar area, full of small shops and markets, that stretches from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar? Should we change this working class area? It cannot be made more orderly by the stroke of a pen.

Didn't we witness how, through a quick decision, the inhabitants and the culture of the Sulukule neighborhood were destroyed and exiled? Sulukule, also in the same historical area of Istanbul as Eminönü, has now become a barren, empty place—an embarrassment for the city.

Does Istanbul have any standards?

Once upon a time, all the signs on Istiklal Avenue were made out of wood because the municipality had decided to standardize them.

Istanbul never developed as a city following fixed standards. Eighty percent of the growth of the city between 1950 and 1980 was through the establishment of shantytowns over which the state had little influence.

The year 1980 marked a disaster. City lands were opened up to big capital. If that was the standard, the only determinant was filling every square meter without thinking about planning or urban design. Today, we live in a country where the state and construction are intertwined and land exploitation is unbridled.

What do I think about the fish sellers in Eminönü? Actually, I have no idea. All I know is that Eminönü's fish sellers are part of Istanbul's reality. And the reality of Istanbul, the growth of which has also been left to its own devices, cannot be changed.

January 10, 2020 Mapping Kanal Istanbul