Istiklal street before the local elections held at the end of March.

Istiklal Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that runs through Istanbul’s historic Beyoglu district, has been a symbol of the city diverse cultural life for decades.

Stretching for a kilometre-and-a-half, this tree-lined boulevard was once filled with bookstores, theatres, nightclubs and bars popular with both locals and tourists in a city of more than 14 million inhabitants.

But Istiklal looks very different now, with its specialist shops, cinema halls and pubs being replaced by a growing number of shisha cafes, restaurants that don’t serve alcohol, and clothes shops that cater to the more traditional tastes of Arab tourists and religious Turks alike.

Many now believe that the government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who began his political career as mayor of Istanbul – is trying to replace Istiklal’s secular, multicultural spirit with one that fits the vision of a far more conservative Turkey.

Emre Pehlivan works at Istiklal’s Denizler Bookstore, which specialises in Istanbul and maritime history.

“There are no more places like ours left in Istiklal Street, and we too are struggling to survive,” he said. “Istiklal is no longer the culture, art and entertainment hub that it used to be. People coming here are uneducated and unqualified and the whole street is now full of counterfeit perfumeries, fast-food outlets, and cheap shops selling underwear.”

A new mosque is now dominating Taksim square, a site where mass anti-government protests took place in 2013.

One of the most prominent buildings in this area used to be the Atatürk Cultural Centre, a symbol of the modern, secular republic. Now the grand building is just a ruin, lying in the shadow of a new mosque that is being built nearby.  

Yeliz Yirmibes, a 32-year-old reporter, moved to Istanbul in 2004.

“Back then, we used to come to Istiklal street for theatre and cinema,” she recalled. “There are still some nice venues left, but very few. There are almost no bookstores any more, and there were so many in the past,” she said.

Politics have further intruded onto the street’s busy life. At its top lies Taksim Square, a landmark that owes its worldwide fame to the mass protests held in 2013 against the government’s plans to destroy one of the city’s last remaining public parks.

Then on 19 March 2016, a suicide bomber killed five people in a terrorist attack right on Istiklal. This event had a significant impact on the street’s popularity among locals and tourists alike.  

“Beyoglu’s economy is dependent on tourism,” says the manager of an Istiklal pub who asked to remain anonymous. “The terrorist attack in 2016 and, prior to that, the mass protests in Taksim square, spooked Western tourists. Before these events, there were many foreigners living here, but now they have left and the main customers are visitors from Arab countries.”

The area around Istanbul’s Tünel, a historic underground funicular that connects İstiklal street with Kadikoy, has seen better days. (Photo: İlkan Akgül)

“This has not been a healthy transformation for this neighbourhood and many original small businesses are struggling to make ends meet,” he added.

Can Ozben is the second-generation manager of the Mandabatmaz coffee shop, an Istanbul institution which has been serving guests its own exclusive brand of Turkish coffee for the last 52 years. He agrees that changing tourist demographics have impacted on local businesses.

“Istiklal Street has long been associated with theatre and cinema. Youngsters used to come here to drink coffee before plays, and Taksim square was a meeting point. Lately, shops and small businesses have experienced a visible transformation due to the rising numbers of Arab tourists,” Ozben said.

Restaurants, cinemas and theatres in Istiklal street have been replaced by fast food shops and hookah bars. (Photo: İlkan Akgül)

“I was born and raised here, but Beyoglu has lost its old spirit. Bookstores and cafes gave place to doner shops and fast food outlets.”

Umit Engin, who owns a once popular Istiklal bookstore, Robinson Crusoe 389, also misses the street’s former diversity.

“Today, if you look at Beyoglu, it resembles a Middle Eastern city,” he said. “And yet, we have not forgotten that just 15 years ago almost all shops in this area had signs in Greek language as well,” he added.

Some business owners have made their peace with the street’s changing profile. Mustafa Topcuglu has been selling local delicacies such as chebureki pie and kibbeh meatballs in this street for 32 years.

“It is true that Beyoglu and the Istiklal Street have changed a lot over time. The most difficult years for us were 2013, when the mass protests took place in Taksim, and 2016, after the suicide bomb attack. There was nobody left and all foreign tourists were gone,” said Topcuglu. “But now, everything is better.”

“There is a different crowd here these days, since most artists who had lived here have left Istiklal. But there are crowds in this street again, and that is good for my business. I cannot complain,” he concluded.  

Istiklal street near the historical underground funicular. (Photo: İlkan Akgül)

A further threat to Istiklal’s bohemian spirit have been government plans to redevelop much of Beyoglu into an upscale residential area.

“For that to happen, old residents have to be evicted from the existing buildings so that they could be demolished and replaced by luxurious apartment and office blocks,” said lawyer and academic Cihan Uzuncarsili Baysal.

“Beyoglu has turned into a construction site. Former residents have left Istiklal after theatre halls, bookstores, cinemas, and affordable restaurants were closed. However, the new, rich residents have not arrived, despite the government’s expectations,” Baysal added.

A photo from Taksim Square. (Photo: İlkan Akgül)

Change may be on its way. In a huge reversal for their fortunes, Erdogan’s AKP party finally lost control of Istanbul in the most recent elections, having held sway there in various forms since the 1990s. Although it is demanding a recount in a number of contested districts, some locals hope that this defeat may signal a different direction for the city at large and Istiklal in particular.

Bookshop owner Engin sees the fortunes of the entire area as inextricably linked with Turkish politics.

“When the political climate changes, I am sure that Istanbul, Beyoglu, and the Istiklal Street will regain their former glory,” he said.

Pehlivan, from the Denizler Bookstore, also remains optimistic.

“Istanbul is the centre of the world, and Beyoglu and the Istiklal street are the centre of Istanbul,” he said. “Their old spirit, full of art and culture, will return one day. I hope that day will come soon.”