“Bir lira bir lira bir liraaa!”
From behind a table heaped with bunches of tere (a jagged-edged variety of cress) a vendor at the weekly market in Istanbul’s Tarlabasi (Tar-luh-BAH-shuh) neighborhood bids for the attention of passing shoppers. His guttural bellows are loud enough to set the ears ringing. But take two steps back and they’re lost in the cacophony of those peddling cheese and olives, nectarines and cherries, lamb and fish, cosmetics and household goods. It’s 4 in the afternoon on a sultry summer Sunday and the Tarlabasi pazari (“market” in Turkish) is in full swing.
Rock-bottom prices on everything from watermelons (one Turkish lira each) to otlu peyniri (herb-speckled cheese from Turkey’s far east) draw Istanbullu from all over the city to down-and-out Tarlabasi, in central Beyoglu district. Located just a stone’s throw from crowded Istiklal Caddesi walking street, the area is a maze of sloped streets lined with ornately embellished 19th-and early 20th-century row houses, churches and mosques in various states of decay and repair.
Evolution from prosperity
In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries,Tarlabasi was a wealthy enclave populated by Greeks and Armenians. After the exodus of those populations in the 1950s and 1960s, the neighborhood fell on hard times and is now home mostly to refugees from Iraq, illegal African immigrants, Roma, and Kurds from eastern Turkey. Tarlabasi is burdened with a reputation as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, and few would wander its lanes at night.
But on a Sunday afternoon, the streets are given over to entirely legitimate activities: groups of women holding babies or knitting needles cluster on stoops, men sip tea and play cards or backgammon on low tables, scrums of kids kick around footballs and the occasional raw wool supplier sells big clumps of recently shorn sheep hair by the kilo (for mattresses) from the back of a truck.
At the market, which technically starts around 9:30 in the morning but doesn’t really get rolling till noon (Istanbullu are late risers, especially on the weekend), hundreds of stalls line both sides of several winding streets and alleys. By 3 p.m., shoppers number in the thousands. Crowds thicken even more toward the approach of dusk when vendors cut prices by as much as half. By 6 p.m., it can take more than 90 minutes to make one’s way from one end of the market to another.
Many of Tarlabasi’s street names — such as Red Mullet, Simit Seller and Dereotu (a wild green) — suggest the neighborhood’s history as a market center, but they’re likely to outlive the market itself.
Risk of gentrification
Along with more than 30 other Istanbul neighbourhoods, Tarlabasi has been slated for a wholesale makeover under a citywide redevelopment plan called Urban Transformation. The Tarlabasi Transformation Project encompasses some 20,000 square meters, within which just 196 buildings and sites will be preserved.
Renderings of a transformed Tarlabasi show tarted-up row houses and sleek modern structures lining wide streets peopled by business suit-clad, briefcase-toting pedestrians who bear little resemblance to the neighborhood’s current residents. Critics have blasted the project as wholesale gentrification, and in fact it does involve the resettlement of a good part of Tarlabasi’s population.
It’s hard to imagine a place for this raucous, messy, exhilarating market – more reminiscent of a pazar in rural Anatolia than the tidy markets held weekly in other areas of central Istanbul – in a “transformed” Tarlabasi. But for now it remains, offering an authentic taste of the city slightly off the beaten path.
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.