Gentrification tears at Istanbul's historically diverse fabric

Wed Oct 29, 2014 3:07am EDT
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By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Business is brisk at Ilya Avramoglu's 78-year-old shop, one of the last owned by a non-Muslim on Istanbul's historic Istiklal avenue, but a new regulation pushing gentrification may soon force its closure.

Run by three generations of a Jewish family and little changed since the 1930s, the wood-paneled Kelebek Corset Shop survived a mob attack nearly 60 years ago and decades of economic decline by keeping up with what women wear underneath.

Now it has become a front in the battle over Istanbul's rapid development that has provoked social protest and polarized public opinion. Avramoglu has even appealed for help from Pope Francis, who is due next month to visit the city that has become a symbol of Turkey's modern prosperity.

An amendment to commercial laws that took effect in July allows landlords to eject tenants of 10 years or more without cause, which could hit countless businesses and residents.

The rule does not target non-Muslim minorities such as Jews, Armenians and Greeks, whose numbers have fallen sharply in the past half century. However, members of these communities are among Istanbul's oldest tradesmen and are often long-term tenants, putting them at risk of eviction.

"Over the years, we watched other minorities close shop one by one," said Avramoglu, 53, who began working at the store when he was 18 and took it over when his father Borya became too frail in 2007.

"We have always been determined to stay, but now our fate isn't in our hands. This law is our death sentence."

Landlords want long-standing tenants to move out so they can lease the properties to new occupants such as chain stores and restaurants, which pay much higher rents. Greed may not always be the motive; Avramoglu's shop belongs to a local Catholic church whose congregation is much diminished and in need of money.   Continued...