The future of Istanbul’s Soho is under threat. The municipal ban on outdoor tables and chairs raises many questions and rightful concerns.
In September 2010, Peter Billenstein visited Istanbul for the very first time. Looking for opportunities to expand his software business in Turkey, the 48 year old German businessman organized a long-weekend trip, hoping to blend business with pleasure. He was amazed by many of Istanbul’s tourist attractions, but nothing struck him more than the Asmalimescit neighborhood. As he strolled through Asmalimescit’s Sofyali Street, he couldn’t help but let out a “Wow!” Thrilled by the energetic atmosphere, he gazed through the vibrant crowd of Istanbul’s nightlife and continued: “I could really live in this city; I should buy a flat!”
Asmalimescit is located in the heart of the city’s flourishing Beyoglu district – dubbed the Soho of Istanbul. Along with neighboring Galata, Cihangir and Istiklal, Asmalimescit has been enjoying a rich variety of coffee shops, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries for the past decade, reminiscent of its glory a century ago. Over the recent years, it has become a hub for intellectuals, freelancers, academicians, foreigners, and the avant-garde of the city. With its narrow pedestrian streets running alongside century old Italian-style buildings, its tiny shops, restaurants and offbeat venues, Asmalimescit caters to Istanbul’s energetic social scene and nightlife.
As demand soared and business boosted, Beyoglu became a district that never sleeps. Accommodating a very broad range of social and income groups, business owners and shopkeepers started to utilize parts of the sidewalks for outdoor tables and chairs -much like in any Southern European city. The outdoor practice accelerated after mid-2009, with the enactment of the nation-wide indoor smoking ban, as smokers preferred to sit outside even on cold winter days.
Limited use of sidewalks by shops is legal as long as a small tax is paid and a license is obtained from the municipality. But with an influx of upbeat and fun-seeking Istanbulites to Beyoglu, venues started exceeding their allowed limits; making it a hassle to walk through the narrowed sidewalks at times, especially on weekends.
In the general elections held in June 2011, Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a victorious 50% of the votes. A month later, in the heart of the humid Istanbul summer, the AKP-governed Municipality of Beyoglu raided the district’s buoyant neighborhoods, sweeping patio tables off the streets. Authorities did not hesitate to tug away tables even when customers –sometimes tourists – were enjoying their drinks. People were forced indoors, and the carefree atmosphere was replaced by instant tension, followed by immediate reaction from local associations and the general public. Instantly, new tables and chairs were put in place. Yet the Municipality was very determined; raids kept on hitting the streets every single day for the entire summer. Business owners and shopkeepers in Beyoglu were astounded and furious, certain that the intervention had a reason beyond the usual disputes over municipal rules.
The following August coincided with the month of Ramadan, a period of fasting for Muslims. Some speculated that the enforcements were intended only for the Holy month, and the Municipality was merely showing off to their devoutly religious electoral base by being sensitive about the food and drink consumption on the streets. But as Ramadan came to an end and nothing changed, it became clear that the Municipality had no intention to step back; 24/7 patrolling of the streets for tables and chairs became routine procedure. Even cushions, which were made available by some shopkeepers for their customers, were pulled away.
Rumors suggested that the perplexing practice was drafted after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan passed through Asmalimescit a month earlier, and got furious when he saw people consuming alcohol on the streets. On August 11th, Southeast European Times – a regional publication – reported that Tahir Berrak Karasu, Deputy President of the Association for Beyoglu Entertainment Venues (BEYDER), confirmed this rumor based on his interviews with eyewitnesses. According to Karasu, bar employees claimed that they witnessed Erdogan’s car get stuck in the congested streets, and some people cheering the prime minister by raising their glasses.
Alcohol consumption has always been a matter of debate since AKP came to power. The Government has been accused of deliberately and consistently increasing tax on alcoholic beverages, as a tool to lower Turkey’s already low consumption; lowest amongst OECD countries. Official figures show that Turkey’s alcohol consumption is only one sixth of the OECD average. While the Government insists that the tax increases aim to achieve the primary budget targets, the opposition groups argue that the continuous increases reflect the hidden ideological agenda of Erdogan leadership.
It is a fact that the tax increase has affected consumption of alcohol. In November 2010, Bahcesehir University Center for Economic and Social Research (BETAM) reported that the alcoholic beverage price index increased by 129% between 2003 and September 2010, where as prices of other consumption goods increased by 79%. The increase in tax revenues during the same period was more than 50% in real terms. BETAM revealed that the number of households declaring that they consumed alcoholic bevarages has declined; along with a decrease in the average alcohol consumption per households in Turkey.
Since the first raid on the streets of Beyoglu, the Municipality has strongly denied any allegations regarding any wrongdoing on their behalf, and did not hesitate to dismiss all speculations that followed; including any intention of blocking alcohol consumption. They repeatedly underlined that they had nearly a thousand complaints from the residents about sidewalk abuse and the accompanying noise that continued until dawn; this did not come as news to anyone, since the area constitutes the very heart of the metropolis’ nightlife. Another reason stated by the authorities was that many shop and restaurant owners did not keep up with their “sidewalk tax”. Rather than reinforcing the law and disabling only those who did not keep up with their payments and limits, they had decided to abolish the sidewalk use once and for all, including those that kept up with their duties. Interestingly enough, it was the same municipality that had turned a blind eye to the increasing abuse over the years – the reason for which eludes many.
Istanbulites –not to mention tourists– are no longer able to wine and dine, or even enjoy a cup of coffee outdoors in the city’s Soho; a situation unimaginable only a year ago. The vibe of the area is in decline, and its upbeat energy curbed. Needless to say, local businesses have been hit very hard, with shops laying off personnel and some closing their doors permanently.
The sidewalk saga of Beyoglu seeks answers, and some suggest that those answers go deeper. It is common knowledge that the real estate prices skyrocketed in the area over the past decade. Both local and international investors took interest in the unique neighborhoods of the district. Yet most buildings in the area are in need of renovation, which is rendered impossible due to the ongoing rental contracts, mostly with coffee shops, bars and restaurants. It is speculated that investment groups close to the AKP government are set out to buy blocks off of the area, and are waiting for the hospitality entrepreneurs to go bankrupt to get the best deals.
In February, Gerd Zerhusen, a German real estate consultant who has been living and working in Beyoglu for 12 years, was another one to take a permanent decision: to leave Turkey for good. He had been assisting international investors for over a decade, helping them develop projects, buy and manage property in Beyoglu – for him, the best place to invest and live. AKP’s latest legislations prohibiting foreign companies to have majority ownership in real estate, combined with bureaucratic roadblocks in investing in historical zones like Beyoglu, had hit his business severely as well. The recent downturn of Beyoglu proved to be the last drop for him. As Zerhusen headed to the airport for his next destination, forlorn and furious, he uttered: “Not my beloved Beyoglu anymore.”