Portrait of a Historical Neighbourhood Through the Lenses of State-led Gentrification: Tarlabasi, Istanbul

Gentrification studies are dominated by theorization and conceptualization from Western Europe and North America (Lees, 2014). The term ‘gentrification’ itself was coined in London by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 and was borrowed later, rather uncritically, in discussions of a global gentrification (Atkinson and Bridge, 2005). More recently, gentrification scholars have begun to critique the idea of taking this Western concept to the Global East and South (Lees et al., 2015; Ley and Teo, 2014). Istanbul can be situated differently, for it sits awkwardly between East (Asia) and West (Europe), and indeed can also be categorized as a Middle Eastern City. Gentrification research in Turkey started relatively early, in the 1980s, when it focused on historic neighbourhoods in central Istanbul experiencing gentrification (Islam and Sakizlioglu, 2015). This was in private housing markets and market-led and it seemed to share many of the same features of classic gentrification in Euro-America. However, over the last 15 years or so processes of state-led gentrification have emerged, in the guise of massive urban regeneration and renewal projects facilitated by the state.

Tarlabasi is one of the first historical neighbourhoods of Istanbul to be affected by this frenzy of urban regeneration projects that ultimately resulted in state-led gentrification. Tarlabasi started in the 19th century as a middle class neighbourhood populated by Ottoman citizens of Armenian and Greek origins. Its population was affected by the political events such as the Capital Law[1] and the Istanbul pogrom[2] and because of these events they started to leave the area in the 1950s. In the 1960s, immigrants from Anatolia bought these architecturally significant properties for very cheap prices and the municipal services started to deteriorate (Can, 2016). However, in the 1980s or 1990s, Tarlabasi did not experience gentrification through the private housing market, even though it is equally close to entertainment and cultural centres and has similar historical heritage to other neighbourhoods that have experienced market-led gentrification (Islam and Sakizlioglu, 2015).

In the 2000s, Tarlabasi was mostly inhabited by the most disadvantaged segments of the urban population (i.e. Kurdish immigrants who fled the military activity in the east, Romani people, sex workers… etc). Tarlabasi has become so rundown and the inhabitants were so ‘undesirable’, it was not possible for a middle class household to live there. The bad publicity about how unsafe, poor, dirty, undesirable Tarlabasi is, has led middle class people to stay away from this neighbourhood. This played a significant role in stopping gentrification but also provided the state with ammunition for the renewal project, and increase the rent gap.

The most visible outcome of how the strategies of the state and conflicts between the state and the inhabitants played out in Tarlabasi was through active criminalization of the inhabitants. It shows the everyday struggles of gentrification-led displacement, capital-led destruction, and transformation of social space. Criminalizing the inhabitants of Tarlabasi led the neighbourhood to become more rundown and it made it easy for local government to step in and prepare a state-led urban renovation project ‘for the sake’ of the inhabitants. In fact, local and national state intentionally increased social polarization and exclusion to implement the project smoothly. In line with the Gramscian understanding (the use of consent and coercion), the depressing and criminalized image of Tarlabasi has been used to get consent from the high and middle income level social classes for this brutal treatment of the inhabitants. As one interviewee from the NGOs who attended the meeting described it:

 ‘I was an observer member of the urban renewal council at the time, so I was able to follow the process. ……..the thing that surprised me the most was the reaction from some academics. Because, they legitimized the whole project by demonizing the people who were living there. They kept saying that there is an important architectural heritage in the area but the people who were living there such as transvestites, Kurds, Romanis and their social status were deteriorating the area. I felt like if they were able kill all the inhabitants only then they would be able to renovate the area. (interviews from the NGOs, March 2013).’

A more sensitive rehabilitation project could have been economically and physically feasible. However, the recent photos of Tarlabasi (below) clearly show a neighbourhood in transformation regardless of the social and legal consequences. As many scholars from the global South and East do, I criticize the state heavily because of its treatment of its own citizens, justifying itself solely on its economic growth and increasing authoritarian politics. A developmental state like Turkey also has the need to catch up economically with the North (Can, 2016) and dismissing the poor while relying on the urban policies that result in gentrification-led displacement is a faster way of achieving that goal rather than a well-thought alternative rehabilitation plan. This also means that thinking about gentrification only around the ‘middle class gentrifier’ will not help to explain and understand Tarlabasi (or cases similar to Tarlabasi). For that reason, analysing gentrification processes through the conflicts that exist and strategies between various agents such as state, inhabitants, and land developers in each locality will tell us more about the evolution of this process of gentrification that is now called ‘planetary’ by some scholars ( see Slater, 2015; Lees, Shin and Lopez-Morales, 2015;2016; Souza, 2015).

[1] In 1942, a bill enacting wealth levy was passed by Turkish Grand National Assembly. This law was presented as fund raising countermeasures for Turkey’s possible entry into the Second World War. However, it also intended to ruin the economic position of non- Muslim minorities as part of the economic ‘Turkification’ of the Turkish Republic. This Bill was concerned with fixed assets, such as industrial enterprises, businesses, building owners and estates of all citizens, but the most affected were Jewish, Armenian, and Greek Turkish citizens and Levantines (Latin-Christians who lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire). In the end, this law led the financial ruin of many non-Muslim families.

[2] The ‘Istanbul pogrom’ was organized mob attacks directed primarily at Istanbul’s Greek minority. A Turkish mob that gathered into the city in advance attacked Istanbul’s Greek community for nine hours. Even though this mob did not openly call for Greeks to be killed, as a result of beatings, arson and attacks, more than a dozen people died. Armenians were also harmed.




Photo credit: Photos from and around the Tarlabasi Renewal Project area, Author’s personal archive, 2017

This post is part of a paper that focuses on the renovation and regeneration projects, as well as the gentrification concept with regard to a set of urban policies that have particularly enriched the holders of capital in the historic neighbourhoods of Istanbul. I analyse this process of gentrification through structure and agency, and the latter examines conflict and how this may play out. There are two levels of structure involved: (i) international (world-wide) and (ii) the Turkish case. In the next contribution I will talk more explicitly about the different dimensions of gentrification in Tarlabasi, Istanbul.


 Aysegul Can received her PhD from University of Sheffield, Department of Urban Studies and Planning. She is currently an independent researcher focusing on urban regeneration, gentrification-led displacement and affordable housing.



Atkinson, R. and Bridge, G. (2005). eds. Gentrification in a Global Context: The New Urban Colonialism. London: Routledge.

Can, A., (2016). The Relationship Between Neighbourhood Renovation and Gentrification in Historic Environment: Example of Istanbul. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Sheffield: University Oh Sheffield.

Islam, T. and Sakizoglu, B. (2015). The Making of, and Resistance to, State-led Gentrification in Istanbul, Turkey. In Lees, L., Shin, H.B. and Lopez-Morales, E. eds. Global Gentrifications: Uneven Development and Displacement. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lees, L. (2014). Gentrification in the Global South? In Parnell, S. and Oldfield, S. eds. The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South. London: Routledge.

Lees, L., H.B. Shin, and E. Lopes-Morales. (2015). eds. Global Gentrifications: Uneven Development and Displacement. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lees, L., H.B. Shin, and E. Lopes-Morales. (2016). Planetary Gentrification. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ley, D. and Teo, S. Y. (2014). Gentrification in Hong Kong? Epistemology vs. Ontology. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(4), 1286-303.

Slater, T. (2015). Planetary Rent Gaps. Antipode 00: 1-24.

Souza, M.L.De. (2015) From the ‘right to the city’ to the right to the planet. City, 19(4): 408-443.


  1. A well written post Aysegul. I come from Bangalore, India and though I live in the UK, I do make it a point to visit my home town at least once every year and gentrification is pasted all over it. Bangalore (Bengaluru as it is now called) expanded rapidly during the height of the ‘internet boom’. It drew in the crowd from all over India which in many ways was one of the best things that happend to my city but then as you put it, Bengaluru was hit with ‘the frenzy of urban regeneration projects’. Well, I will be visiting it soon and I am sure I will come back and add something more to my comment!
    Once again, a well written piece and hope to read more of your stuff.

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