Tough times for Istanbul, tougher times for Beyoğlu

When things are bad for Istanbul, they are often worse for Beyoğlu. That has been the case at different points in the city's history, and certainly for the past decade, where the district has slowly but surely lost its glory. Modern institutions in Beyoğlu have been dropping like flies one after the other.

When things are bad for Istanbul, they are often worse for Beyoğlu. That has been the case at different points in the city's history, and certainly for the past decade, where the district has slowly but surely lost its glory and status as the city's primary nightlife hub while Istanbul itself has been thoroughly engulfed in concrete and ceaseless construction projects. 

There are numerous factors at play in this decline, most notably the closure of many bars, restaurants and historic small businesses in favor of glittering, Instagram-friendly baklava shops, shisha cafes and makeup stores catering exclusively to tourists. 

This has led many Istanbulites to solemnly declare that “Beyoğlu is finished” and opt to hang out elsewhere. I've pushed back against this assertion for years, insisting that the district is too important and full of history to leave behind. Moreover, there are patches that have maintained their character, in particular the areas on and around Mis, Kurabiye and Saksı Streets, which are full of crowded bars, grillhouses and meyhanes, as well as throngs of people drinking on the street, and vendors selling food until the wee hours of the morning. 

What cannot be refuted is that the Beyoğlu of 2020 is a far cry from the Beyoğlu of 2008. By and large, the profile of those hanging out there has changed from students, artists, journalists and intellectuals to tourists and the 30-somethings like myself still refusing to give up on the area. It is very difficult to stay positive while wandering around, particularly down Yeşilçam Street, which is synonymous with the classic era of Turkish cinema. 

The beloved, historic Emek cinema was demolished in 2013 despite a valliant effort on the behalf of activists to stop it. Its old blue and white sign with its retro lettering still stood outside even after it was closed, then suddenly it disappeared. I wonder if it was tossed in a garbage dump or remains concealed in a basement somewhere. The cinema, which was nestled in the corner of Yeşilçam Street where it meets Istiklal Avenue, is now a Madame Tussaud's and a soulless shisha cafe.

Heading past the cinema and turning a left on the angle-shaped Yeşilçam Street in 2008, you would stepped into a rowdy, full strip of bars that was known as Little Beyoğlu. The beer was cheap and the music was loud. Amid the pre-pandemic difficulties, every one of them closed down except for the trusty Pendor Corner, known for its cheap drinks and free rock concerts. Now Pendor has been (at least temporarily) shuttered, and the only business open on the street is a lonely barbershop. 

Modern institutions in Beyoğlu have been dropping like flies one after the other. Zencefil, Istanbul's first vegetarian restaurant that opened in 1993, bid farewell to its loyal customers in July. 

Asmalıaltı--a cozy multi-story bar in the heart of Nevizade that was great for watching the nonstop activity rush past the adjacent streets--closed in August after two decades in business. 

Asmalımescit's Refik, one of the district's iconic meyhanes, hung up the apron in September after having been around since 1954. The chiq bar Şimdi just around the corner closed down after 15 years in business. Just across Istiklal, the swanky Leb-i Derya, with its stunning top-floor views of the Bosphorus, was long coveted as a great place for a romantic dinner or cocktail. It shut down without a peep several months ago and will not reopen. 

My own favorite meyhane, Müşterek, has been unable to resume service due to licensing issues after closing during the early days of the pandemic, but fortunately the owners had opened a sister meyhane, Meclis, and a lovely bar called Marlen on the floor above last year. Both offer spacious and airy settings with warm, genuine service, excellent food and reasonable prices, and are two great reasons to keeping hanging out in Beyoğlu. 

It's a miracle that Beyoğlu's few remaining independent movie theaters are on their feet. Beyoğlu Cinema, known for its eclectic showings, was already facing severe financial trouble prior to the pandemic.  Atlas Cinema, directly across the street, is being converted into a cinema museum by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Recently, I went to another small theatre, Cinemajestic to see a Turkish film called Güvercin (The Pigeon). I showed up 25 minutes early and tried to buy a ticket, but the man behind the counter said that no one else had bought one and that they wouldn't screen the movie unless at least a few other filmgoers arrived. 

I slumped down glumly on a bench, well aware of the fact that no one was going to show but clinging to a delusional sense of optimism that I might be wrong. At five to the hour, I got up and left. The weather was cool and the sun gentle, but there was sadness and confusion in the air and it was impossible to not let it deflate me. I headed toward Taksim Square and took the metro back home. 

July 14, 2020 Remember Sulukule?