Istanbul nightlife moves to Asia as Beyoğlu undergoes latest wave of change

Istanbul has undergone tremendous change in the last decade, with Beyoğlu, once the centre of social life on the European side of the city becoming a place mostly appealing to tourists from elsewhere in the Middle East. Meanwhile, residents looking for a more liberal environment have flocked to Kadıköy, a lively neighbourhood on the Asian shore of the city.

The transformation of Istanbul’s nightlife speeded up after the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Beyoğlu’s Taksim, a square next to Gezi Park and a historical centre of dissent, would be closed to political activity. A redevelopment project began to transform the square and rents went up on İstiklal, the broad pedestrian street bisecting Beyoğlu. Shops shut down to be replaced with others serving the new Middle Eastern tourist clientele.

Academic and author Murat Belge has said what is now seen as the old Beyoğlu was the product of many years of social and political change. After a huge fire in 1871, which left most buildings destroyed, much of Beyoğlu was rebuilt according to the architectural styles of the day. The population also changed with non-Muslims creating a new neighbourhood around the foreign embassies that opened in the then Ottoman capital. Alongside the empire’s Westernisation policies of the day, Beyoğlu with its large commercial buildings, alehouses and theatres became the centre of the city’ nightlife.

During Turkey’s War of Independence that followed World War One, cosmopolitan Istanbul was briefly occupied by the allied powers was seen as a foreign space, while Ankara was as a national Turkish town.

“The lifestyle in Beyoğlu did not conform to nationalism. Therefore the death bells started ringing for Beyoğlu,” Belge said.

During the 1950s, Beyoğlu managed to remain a social hub, but non-Muslims left to be replaced by waves of migrants from rural Turkey in the 1980s, changing the character of the neighbourhood.

“Turkey has a society that quarrels with its history,” Belge said and some people constantly want to rewrite that history. As a result new visions were imposed on Beyoğlu whenever power changed hands. 

Bekir Özcan, the district head of the secular main opposition Republican People Party (CHP), said the transformation of the neighbourhood should be seen in the light of which party was in control of Beyoğlu at different times. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Islamist predecessors have won all the local polls in the district since 1994.

Özcan said there had been a cultural invasion of Beyoğlu. “The historical texture of the neighbourhood has been destroyed. They poured cement on every piece of soil they found,” he said. 

“When you walked along the İstiklal Avenue, you would see bookshops on the right and left. There were second-hand booksellers and cinemas. Beyoğlu was a centre of attraction, now everybody is running away from it,” Özcan said. 

“Those who held power in every period have remoulded Beyoğlu with their own mentality and lack of culture. And today what we are left with are dessert and baklava shops that were opened one day ago, but claim they have been active since the 1940s, cheap apparel shops, an İstiklal Avenue that lacks a single nice cafe, whose trees have been felled,” said Zeynep Tanbay, a dancer and a long-time resident of the neighbourhood.  

İstiklal is as packed as before, but the crowds have changed. “Syrians, Arabs are the majority. Walking in Beyoğlu is really hard. You continuously hear Arab voices. The movie theatres on İstiklal Avenue are shutting down. Those now coming to Beyoğlu are not interested in them. A new Beyoğlu has been built,” Belge said. 

Some say it is the end of Beyoğlu. Author and journalist Ümit Kıvanç disagrees, saying now it is a different place with more families and children, but it is still a mixed-sex space. “The shops are changing hands more frequently, that is mostly the result of the greed of the owners. Of course they have started to supply more of what the customers demand, therefore there are more dessert shops. But there are also falafel shops I guess opened by Syrians, which is a huge gain,” he said. 

Kıvanç said the neighbourhood might change again, for example if numbers of Western tourists increased. But with incredibly high rents, it is impossible for locals to find modest restaurants and cafes. “Because of high prices, people who prefer a decent conversation over entertainment have been withdrawing from Beyoğlu,” he said.

People enjoying a summer evening in Kadıköy.
People enjoying a summer evening in Kadıköy.

The shift of social life from Beyoğlu has disturbed the long-time residents of the secularist neighbourhood of Kadıköy, which was once a place of freedom, for particularly women, with modest restaurants, cafes and most importantly teahouses along its coast.

“When I fist moved to Kadıköy, it was a place a woman could walk alone from the dock to her home with a quite low-cut dress in the middle of the night,” said Özcan Sapan, who moved to the neighbourhood in 1985. “Nowadays this is not possible,” he said. “Kadıköy has become a centre of attraction, but so much so that I sometimes think if everybody flushed the toilet at the same instant, we would drown in sewage.”

Ulaş Çetin, a blogger who has been living in the neighbourhood for 20 years said such romantic myths portraying Kadıköy as some kind of lost haven were exaggerated. 

“It is true that the streets of Kadıköy were home to many sub-cultures, it is true that punk, rap, and underground literature sprouted here. But besides that the real identity of the neighbourhood has always been shaped by middle class people who do not care for nothing but their comfort,” he said.

“Thus today the people of Kadıköy see dissent as objecting to any intervention to their clothing and drinking alcohol,” he said. “This situation is also to the benefit of the political power. The conservative power serves Kadıköy to young people from everywhere in Istanbul as a place they can entertain themselves the way they like."

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.