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'Hipstanbulites' struggle to preserve their city's heritage

Istanbul, a magnificent city, has become a victim of its own beauty by overpopulation. Now, college students, young professionals, artists and others find ways to preserve breathable spaces in Istanbul.
Members of LGBT community take part in a Gay Pride parade in central Istanbul, Turkey, July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - RC1A989D9800

We don’t obey, we don’t shut up, we aren’t afraid,” shouted members of the LGBTQ community during the Gay Pride parade in Istanbul. On July 1, 2018, the number of people gathered was a far cry from the huge gathering of 2014, the last time that the Turkish government allowed the parade.

The participants of Istanbul's Gay Pride parade are not necessarily the people who define themselves with one or more of the letters in LGBTQI. These people represent what's called “Hipstanbul." From the X, Y or Z generations all the way to those born in the 1950s, Hipstanbul represents a resistance to commercialization.

The word "hipster" is well-defined enough. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as a subculture struggling to find originality. “Original” or “authentic” are terms you’d frequently hear on college campuses, thrift markets and pubs in Istanbul. It may be used for anything from a political analysis to a heritage lantern.

The first time I heard the term was from my Airbnb host, "Mete," in Karakoy, in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, in 2015. He owned a seven-story building that he inherited, and he rented the top floor. US-educated architect Mete had upgraded the whole building with the latest technology. Six floors were his offices, and the top floor was his partying space, which was also rented out to people provided that he thought they were “Hipstanbul material.” Since then, I've heard the term used by college students, white-collar professionals and artisans of the city.

Mete told Al-Monitor, “Hipstanbul means trying to preserve whatever memories you have from your friends, family and childhood. My father traveled to Boston with me in 2007, almost three decades after his own college graduation. The roads were the same, the buildings were the same — even some of the restaurants were the same. The anchors of his memories were there. I saw a smile on his face I hadn’t seen ever before. That isn’t possible in Istanbul.”

His partner, Leyla — who grew up in Uskudar, a district in the Anatolian part of the city — called Istanbul “her cement-scented love.”

“Wherever you go, there is construction,” she said. “Our memories are deconstructed and erased. It is perpetual amnesia. We constantly have to remember a new setup. It is exhausting. Do you miss the city in which you live in every day? We do.”

In May, Al-Monitor reported in detail that Istanbulites leave their city in significant numbers for other seaside cities and towns. How about those who cannot leave? They struggle to create pockets of livable spaces; [there are] those who preserve the culture of their own childhood, which is only two decades old, and the flora and fauna as much as possible.

Reputable polling agency IPSOS’ March 2018 report shows that nostalgia has risen 3% in the last two years, ranking third among shared values in Turkey. Seventy-seven percent of Turks believe “people used to be kinder, gentler and more righteous in the past.” Intriguingly, the top shared attitude is “environmental sensitivity,” at 82%.

A prominent professor of psychology, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “What has intrigued me over the last decade has been a yearning for a past that people have never experienced. I have patients as high school students, returning conscripts, young convicts as well as colleagues who serve as school psychologists. The most common problem for youngsters is nature deficiency as well as a yearning for their parents’ childhood. Why would a young person yearn for a time he has never experienced? When it is one case, it is an outlier. When you hear 10-15 youths [aged 15-24] [say this every] day for years, it is a phenomenon.”

Turkish social media often carries trending topics that generate breakdowns and agony about man-made disasters. The common theme is the "concrete jungle" of Istanbul. The city ranks as one of the world’s lowest percentage of public green spaces.

Indeed, the strength of nostalgia can be seen in all political parties’ regular ads. So what can you do when you miss a time you have never been a part of after all? 

Emine, a single artist in her late 30s who lives in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “I come from Rize [a city on Turkey’s Black Sea coast], and my family is rather conservative. When I moved to this flat in 2006, my dad was sad there was a TEKEL [Turkey’s alcohol production and distribution authority] outlet across from my flat. He hasn’t visited since, and the store has been replaced with a restaurant. Kadikoy belongs to the opposition [Republican Peoples’ Party] municipality; all of those who can no longer survive in the traditional red light district [Beyoglu, which has a Justice and Development Party (AKP) municipality] started moving out here. It has become a refugee for AKP outcasts.

"There is the good and the difficult. The good is that Kadikoy is burgeoning with youth and innovation. The latest tunes, screenplays, photos, songs, even recipes are being created somewhere down the street here [in Kadikoy] as we speak. The difficult is the chaos and high prices. Many stores couldn’t survive. Look around; there are almost no markets, spice shops, toy stores, clothing outlets — they've been replaced with fancy restaurants and pubs. Parking is impossible over the weekends. Young families struggle because it is difficult to raise kids here. But then again, it is the heart of the city and you are never bored here.”

Al-Monitor also spoke with managers or designers of spaces where Hipstanbulites thrive. One of these safe spaces are age-old taverns, commune-style restaurants reconstructed as houses of friendship. Galata Kitchen is an example of where only seasonal and homemade food is served with house wine. Customers share a table, bread baskets, and pitchers of drinks. The eatery functions more like a community center than a restaurant, as people post ads for jobs, furniture sales, looking for roommates or even places to leave their house plants and pets.

Adalet Cavdar, a literary and art critic, and her partner run a small tavern, Zula Meyhanesi, with amazing views of Galata Tower. The place can host only 28 guests, and most of the time it feels as if you are at a house party. That was the point for the establishment: to create a hangout, a safe space where everybody knows your name. They play different types of music at low volume until guests are willing to sing together and even dance between the tables. There is no way to know how the night will end.

Cavdar told Al-Monitor, “We try not to play sad tunes, and [we] give people a space to listen.” Cavdar’s sentiment was repeated by several other cafe and restaurant owners. Their common observation was that people are hungry to engage each other in a city that compels them into virtual relationships.

Yet it is not easy to run small places resisting commercialization. Neither Cavdar nor other managers are in this business to make a significant profit or establish chain businesses. On the contrary, they are barely making ends meet in a country where the price of alcohol and alcohol permits multiply within a year. They aim to keep alive a tradition that would otherwise not be a part of their identity.

There are several other lifestyles — from pious to "YouTuber" Hipstanbulites — that yearn to preserve a tradition, a park or a taste of life. Songs from the 1970s, fashion from the 1980s and posters of films from the 1990s are all symbols of this yearning. They are almost always adopted with the latest technology and design, ranging from Snapchat to anime.

My Airbnb host, Mete, said, “They can ban alcohol sales after 10 a.m. all around Turkey. But we have a network. My waitress friend in the tavern below will come over with a bottle of wine after her shift. This is resistance in Hipstanbul.”

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