Once upon a time Tophane

“This area has been dead for long”

Mehmet has worked at the Veli Alemdar Han for 25 years

Of the five stories of workshops and offices in Veli Alemdar Han, almost all are abandoned. The only thing left of the electricians’ workshops and key-makers are crumbled drywall, dusty chairs and a grey cat who follows us at a distance. Mehmet, one of the last two custodians looking after the Han, shrugs. He is not sad, just resigned. He has worked at the Veli Alemdar Han for 25 years. In a few months, this century-and-a-half old work-hall will be gutted and turned into luxury hotels. Welcome to Tophane.

Tophane has been a working class neighbourhood since before the concept of a working class or industrial revolution even existed. Tophane, which literally means “arsenal”, was for hundreds of years the site of the Tophane-i Amire, the Imperial weapons-works. The cannon foundry, established at the command of Fatih Sultan Mehmet forged the guns which battered the walls of Bucharest, Vienna and Baghdad during the height of the empire’s power in the 16th and 17th centuries. The arsenal was made obsolete by Western weapons imports and closed its doors in the 19th century, by which time the neighbourhood had grown to include residences and significant works of Ottoman architecture. Tophane then became a multi-ethnic neighbourhood with small workshops, no-nonsense maritime lawyers and shipping companies serving the docks nearby. Until a few years ago, when it began to fall apart.

Tophane’s center, Karabaş Mektebi street

Sadly, the narrative of a Cool Istanbul – a confident, rising, cosmopolitan city made wealthy by a business boom – has been the dominant one in world media. The emergence of a thriving art scene in Istanbul draws specific and often glowing attention, leaving only little space for a proletarian neighbourhood tinged with the legacy of Ottoman military might. The transformation of Istanbul into a world centre of culture with a buzzing modern art scene is one of the more exciting developments of the past decade, but it is a transformation more fraught and problematic than the triumphant cultural and economic rise described by many international journalists.

The price of urban development is not something that has gone by unexamined. Gentrification and dislocation are being studied and resisted in a number of ways by activists and online media. The Istanbul art mainstream certainly has not ignored the topic, with the noted cultural centre SALT  devoting an entire show to gentrification last year.

View of Galata tower from Tophane

This growing discontent has, however, been limited both in terms of geography and what is being discussed. The Beyoğlu district and Istanbul’s entertainment heart of Taksim and Istiklal Caddesi, are frequently topics in retrospectives and studies, but the goliath of Istanbul anti-gentrification struggles lies a few minutes walk north. The neighbourhood of Tarlabaşı, a shambling historic district with large Kurdish and Roma populations, is facing gentrification of the most brutal kind. The entire area has been declared an Urban Renewal Area (URA) under the controversial law No.5366 and the local residents are being forced out.

A similar form of gentrification is currently at work in Tophane, but it is not discussed in the same way as Tarlabaşı. The results are obvious even to the most casual observer. All it takes is a stroll through the neighbourhood streets festooned with For Rent-signs; a glance into the empty workshops; or a chat with Mehmet at the empty shell of the Veli Alemdar Han. Tophane The Arsenal has been reshaped by the convergence of business, infrastructure and, yes, cultural development. The workers’ Tophane is dying, and Cool Istanbul is the culprit.

Tophane is not Tarlabaşı, and there are structural reasons for why gentrification has not been as sudden or violent in Tophane. Both neighbourhoods are working-class districts whose former Greek, Armenian, and Jewish populations have been replaced by more recent Anatolian migrants. There, the similarities end. Unlike Tarlabaşı, Tophane is more economically established, thanks to the arsenal and the port facilities. This, in turn, has lead to a much higher percentage of land ownership for Tophane’s residents. They are not renters who can be evicted in one swoop. Also, Tophane is not an URA targeted through official policy, but it is surrounded by such areas in Karakoy, and Galata. Lastly, and perhaps most problematically, Tophane is home to Istanbul’s modern art movement.

The movement for making Istanbul a globally recognised art city began with the Biennial foundation in 1987. The foundation, sponsored by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts  initially staged its shows in a variety of spaces around the city. Art came to find a centre in Tophane with the opening of the Istanbul Modern in Tophane’s warehouse district in 2004. In the following years, more galleries and art spaces followed suit, the Biennial staged more exhibitions there at Antrepo 3 and at Tütün Deposu (a former tobacco warehouse). As well, the Tophane galleries became a vibrant community in their own right.

Inside the Veli Alemdar Han

Concurrent with the emergence of the art scene, Tophane gained a new neighbour; the Galata Port project, an ambitious attempt to buy out the entire Tophane/Karaköy shoreline and create a new tourist and entertainment district. This was the capstone of a transition away from merchant shipping services and towards cruise ships bringing in tourists.

The development has not been smooth. The port project was called off only a year after the 2005 launch due to difficulties in buying out the many family-owned land in Tophane, only to be re-launched recently. Whatever the status of the project, to Mehmet and the custodians at the Veli Alemdar Han, the damage is done. Although the Han was bought officially only last year, it has been emptying out ever since the Istanbul Modern opened in 2004.

The workers’ Tophane is dying, and Cool Istanbul is the culprit

Art may not be leading the charge in the gentrification of Tophane, but it is an intrinsic part of the change. Because the process is linked to the creation of Istanbul as a rising cultural capital rather than URAs and forced evictions, Tophane has not become an important case for anti-gentrification activists. Instead, reports from the resistance in Tophane have used a reductive narrative of culture clashes and a religious-secular divide which obscures the dynamics at work.

In the late summer of 2010, a series of attacks at gallery openings took place in Tophane. They were reported as cases of angry, socially conservative locals lashing out against libertine alcohol-consuming artists. Although gentrification was acknowledged as a factor, the spectre of Islamist opposition was raised and the events were filed as part of Turkey’s “culture war”. More so than the attacks themselves, the response to them illustrates the way Tophane is thought about when discussing modern Istanbul. The media linked them to opposition of art and night life, full stop.

Outside the Veli Alemdar Han

Egemen is an animator-turned-artist who shares an inconspicuous workshop in lower Tophane with his friends. He is eager to show their collective space, respectfully soundproofed to ensure that their rock band sessions do not echo onto the streets. Egemen does not buy into narratives of tension and local anger. Upper Tophane is known to be more conservative, he says. The attacks in that area were the result of a pattern of disrespectful behaviour by gallery patrons. As for Egemen and his friends, they have been renting their space for the past four years. Hardly lifelong residents of Tophane, but they too have been affected by the gentrification. The rents are rising, he says. Then, he speaks fondly about the “uncles” in the workshop across the road who are happy to help with advice about tools or woodworking.

Egemen and his collective are optimistic for the prospects of co-existence. To their credit, no Tophane locals ever expressed a hatred of artists per se. Rather, there is a sense of resignation, of hopelessness, against the larger forces at work. “What are you going to write about?” asked one of the men in front of a small machine shop in lower Tophane. “There’s nothing to write about here anymore. It’s over, done. Finished.”

Photos by Olivia Henry.