With CHP win in local elections, it’s festival time in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu

Turkey’s ruling AKP has lost Beyoğlu Municipality for the first time after 20 years. Taksim shopkeepers, who will organize a festival on April 13, talked about the transformation of the neighborhood, interventions in the culture of life and their demands from the new CHP administration.

Ferhat Yaşar / DUVAR

Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district is one of the most preferred districts of the megacity with its historical buildings, culture of life and 24-hour venues. The district’s municipality was run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for 20 years. Especially after the Gezi Park protests, Taksim shopkeepers were constantly targeted for supporting the protesters and drinking establishments were “penalized.”

Since 2011, tables and chairs in front of drinking establishments have been collected by the municipality, or they were smashed. The owners were asked to pay large fees under the name of occupation. Venues were closed for days on grounds such as music volume and playing hours. Shopkeepers suffered millions of liras in losses.

Streets and alleys, especially those with drinking establishments, were closed for weeks on the grounds of renovations, and the renovations were prolonged.

Following the restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, Beyoğlu shopkeepers managed to survive despite huge debts. After the pandemic, successive hikes in alcoholic beverages and rents caused great difficulties for them. Unable to withstand the difficulties and pay their debts, many of the symbols of Beyoğlu were either closed or changed hands.

On the other hand, the Istiklal Street was targeted by bombings on March 19, 2016 and Nov. 13, 2022.

The bans and attacks also affected the preferences of Istanbulites and Taksim ceased to be the first choice for gatherings. The change in preference pushed shopkeepers into a bottleneck.

With all these, Taksim shopkeeperes united to support the main opposition CHP’s Beyoğlu mayoral candidate İnan Güney, and the DEM Party did not field any candidate in the district.

Taksim Shopkeepers Initiative prepared brochures titled "Why do we support İnan Güney?,” which read, “We support İnan Güney for promising that the municipality will listen to the shopkeepers, give them a say in the management of the neighborhood, and develop collaborations with them, as opposed to the understanding that is the fearful dream of the shopkeepers and sees them as customers; for defending that the municipality will be loyal to the understanding of social municipalism, as opposed to intimidating the shopkeepers with astronomical fees for occupation and administrative fines; and for promising to support the re-establishment of cultural centers such as theaters, cinemas and libraries, which are historically the dynamics of the neighborhood and identified with Taksim.”

In the March 31st local elections, Beyoğlu Mayor and AKP’s candidate Haydar Ali Yıldız lost the election with 40.74 percent of the vote, whereas CHP’s candidate İnan Güney, who received 49.22 percent of the votes, was elected as mayor. Thus, Beyoğlu Municipality, which had been run by the AKP since the 2004 local elections, passed to the CHP.

Taksim Shopkeepers Initiative will organize a festival on April 13 between 8.30 p.m. and 10.30 p.m with the slogan "Beyoğlu Again" after the candidate it supported won. Beyoğlu Mayor İnan Güney was also invited to the festival.

The organizers of the festival are 20 businesses, including bars, taverns, patisseries, tea shops, bookstores and barbershops, located on Mis, Kurabiye and Saklı Süslü, the iconic streets of Taksim. Boğaziçi University and ITU music groups, Stüdyo Frankie dancers and The Uninvited Jazz Band are also invited to the festival.

A representative from the initiative, İsa Kaya, said, “For years, Beyoğlu has longed for culture, art and music. In the past, it used to be a very important period of time for us after the 11.45 p.m. movie session at night. The audience would stop by on their way out, every shopkeeper would make their last sales and make a profit. The fun of the city would start when the movie show was over. Nowadays, even as shopkeepers, we cannot find a place to go to the movies. Of course, the contributions of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in the last year should be excluded from this situation.”

“The streets became unsafe because they remained dark. There is no need to explain the share of the former administration in this situation. By taking decisions almost similar to the decisions of the heavy criminal courts, all shopkeepers were sentenced to astronomical fines and indebted to the municipality. I have been living in Beyoğlu for 36 years and working as a shopkeeper for 22 years. Beyoğlu changes and nurtures everyone, and this is where the importance of our district comes from. Because Beyoğlu is a district that exists with differences as a requirement of having a cultural richness,” Kaya added.

He also talked about the problems they experience, and said, “They tried to destroy Beyoğlu's raison d'être. Music, culture and art were sacrificed to rents. Dozens of concert venues were closed down, venue licenses were revoked on nonsense excuses, theaters and cinemas were shut down, and as if that were not enough, these places of memory were tried to be forgotten. The work of street musicians, the symbol of İstiklal Street, was prevented and musicians were dispersed. Before, we, as shopkeepers, used to benefit from street musicians coming from outside in terms of the stage. Many famous music groups from around the world used to come to Beyoğlu for traveling purposes. Thus, the costs were decreasing for us and we were able to give a stage. But in the current situation, they made this impossible.”

“We believe that this is one of the issues that the new administration should solve. On March 31, Mayor İnan Güney made commitments to us mostly on these issues. As the initiative, we have supported the new mayor since the first day as part of the urban consensus. In the coming period, we want to work with the municipality on all issues concerning the shopkeepers, especially the tables and chairs we have placed on the street. In the context of local governance, we have started to look to the future with more hope, believing that we will breathe a big sigh of relief in the new period,” he added.

Enes Çetin, the owner of Jack Bar on Mis Street, describes the festival and the change of municipality as “Beyoğlu back to the old!”

Çetin, who has been a shopkeeper for the last two years in Beyoğlu, said, “The story of Beyoğlu, its streets, shopkeepers and guests made me more attached to this place. Afterwards, I found myself in the free streets of Beyoğlu at every opportunity. But over time, a policy of changing the culture of Beyoğlu was initiated. They started to do this by intimidating both the shopkeepers and those of us who come here. As a matter of fact, they thought they would achieve their goals by disrupting the culture of Beyoğlu. Thanks to Beyoğlu shopkeepers and Beyoğlu residents who have struggled in every way from yesterday to today, today we can call it Beyoğlu again. Our expectation from the new administration and Beyoğlu Municipality is to support and strengthen the shopkeepers.”

Kemal Koçak from Semerkand Bookstore, one of the festival organizers, said, “I have been a business owner in Beyoğlu Süslü Saksı Street for 25 years and I have never seen any return of the taxes paid. I don't mean real estate and garbage tax payments, we pay a tax called 'Culture Foundation Contribution Share'. This tax is paid by all taxpayers who have a workplace here. We pay it in two installments every year. In 2023, I paid a total of 166 liras. I have never seen these taxes returned to us, the taxes collected here are transferred to other districts of Beyoğlu, this is an injustice.”

Azad Bozan, who has been a shopkeeper in Beyoğlu for 25 years, said, “In our youth, Beyoğlu was a place where cultural and artistic events were held and where we could meet artists on the street. For this reason alone, we used to come to Beyoğlu with friends from Bağcılar, eager to see a famous artist. This was a place where artists and the public could walk on the same street. Boutique theaters, cinemas, music and event venues were undertaking a mission where new talents trying to make a name for themselves could take the stage. Since 1999, I have been a venue manager and culture and arts organizer in Beyoğlu. I am currently managing music bands.”

“Especially since 2016, Beyoğlu has been subjected to change and transformation by consciously. In particular, iconic places and streets in Beyoğlu that represent a certain culture were either closed down or filled with restaurants and hookah cafes, making them impassable. The sociology of Beyoğlu was persistently tried to be conservatized by the previous local administrations and partially succeeded. Artists have moved away from the area because there are no boutique venues where they can perform and no platforms where they can socialize. Beyoğlu, which used to attract tourists due to its nightlife and entertainment culture, has now turned into a location where conservative tourists visit for clothing and food consumption,” Bozan concluded.