Watercolour, 2008. Since then the view has changed quite a bit. The wooden fence in the foreground has been ripped down, the house with the roof that meets the minaret has collapsed and is now a dangerous ruin which the local council has ring-fenced with an aluminium barrier, the house with the satellite dishes has been renovated and repainted, one of the low buildings on the right has been extended (slightly beyond its original footprint), and the fig tree has grown to maturity. Two things are happening at once in this neighbourhood: it’s falling down and being done up (gentrified).
Oil painting, early June 2015, after an unusually wet Spring. This painting also gives you an idea of how steep the hill is. I painted it ‘en plein air’, which sounds very adventurous but I was stood right outside the front door keeping an eye on my daughter. That’s her, talking to the street cat. I didn’t have to tone down the graffiti – it’s all pretty good-natured, childish stuff on our street (none of the nationalist or separatist provocations you sometimes see daubed on other streets in this neighbourhood). Our streets are a playground for children from the day they learn to walk.
Below is the same view in watercolour, painted from a slightly elevated position (the first floor window – it was cold! – February 2017). You’ll notice a few buildings have had a new paint job. The new elevation gives a view of the more modern housing blocks into the distance (each with the obligatory satellite dish). The graffiti on the wall in the right-hand foreground are actually a twitter hashtag, placing this painting of an historical neighbourhood firmly in the twenty-first century. Aside from the Turkish graffiti and the architecture which is typical of the area, there is also a discarded Efes beer can in the foreground. I cant say whether Istanbul has developed a feral dog population which is distinct from those of other cities elsewhere in the world, but there does tend to be a standard Istanbul mongrel with black muzzle and ears – enough local detail then to say that they are also scratching at Turkish fleas!
As one of the steepest streets in the neighbourhood, it briefly becomes a sledging piste whenever there’s enough snow in the winter. I say a sledging piste, but I have never seen a sledge used on it. Actually a sledge would gather far too much speed, bearing in mind that the end of the run is a line of brick-walled houses. Plastic bags, bits of old wood and plastic are the preferred means of transport.
As I type this article I can raise my eyes and look out of one of the windows just above the boy in this photograph. Although of course this photo was taken long before we lived here – before I was born in fact. It was taken by Ara Guler, an Armenian photojournalist from Istanbul (who achieved world fame through his camera, photographing the likes of Picasso, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Indira Gandhi, and Alfred Hitchcock). He earned the epithet ‘The Eye of Istanbul’ with black and white shots like this taken in the 1950s and 60s.
In terms of the built environment everything you see in that photo remains unchanged except for the cobbles which have been re-laid in a different pattern. You do also still see local Turkish men and their sons wearing jackets like this, or suits – looking quite dapper in that old-fashioned way, however down at heel they might also be.
But things are changing. Right now two of the houses you see in the Guler photo above have big For Sale signs hung up on them. House prices have soared and there is money to be made from tourist rentals. My presence here is all part of that slow gentrification I suppose. But it has at least been organic, and the only other alternatives are far, far worse: continued neglect and the gradual collapse of the historical built environment, or a government urban renewal project which would involve evictions and large scale ‘modernisation’ to profit from tourism.
It must be remembered too, that Balat has seen many rises and falls over the centuries (the Jews, the Armenians, the Greeks, the influx of Black Sea Turks… the history of this neighbourhood alone could fill volumes… no space to even scratch the surface of that in this post… but it’s all there to those that know…); and everything needs qualifying in this period of turmoil (behind the wall with the smiley face on it in the oil painting above lives a family from Aleppo – one of literally millions who have fled the war in Syria).
Once in a while, this contraption arrives at the bottom of our street. Now I don’t know how long the ‘hand-operated carousel’ has been doing the rounds of our neighbourhood but I’m guessing it pre-dates Ara Guler’s photo by some way.
Walking home just before dawn after a long night’s drinking, and the most amazing sweet smell of freshly baked pastries comes wafting out of old stone doorways – pastries that are being piled up in the glass compartments of small carts to be walked miles by the father of the house on his daily adventure through the city as itinerant hawker – while the mother hangs long chains of laundry across the street, the semaphore of domestic hardship.
Oil painting – Summer 2005.
And then emerging onto some vantage point above the narrow streets, the city throbs in the heat of an underwater scene, insulated by pollution, submerged in the daily struggle for the possibility of kindness.
View from our terrace – oil painting 2006.