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.
But Avramoglu and a handful of other older businesses are fighting to keep their slice of history alive. It is struggle that pits the heritage of Istanbul, founded by ancient Greeks as Byzantium and known for centuries as Constantinople after a Roman emperor, against President Tayyip Erdogan’s vision of transforming the city of 15 million people into a modern global metropolis.
A $100 billion government building spree in Istanbul includes a bridge, rail and car tunnels linking Europe with Asia across the Bosphorus and a third airport that aims to be the world’s busiest when it opens in 2017. An estimated 50,000 buildings are set to be demolished in an “urban renewal” project to make the city safe from earthquakes.
Construction accounts for about 20 percent of the economy with affiliated industries, and Erdogan’s critics say it can be used for political patronage that has helped fund his Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has held power for more than a decade.
Prosecutors have dropped corruption inquiries implicating members of Erdogan’s inner circle, including into alleged links to construction sector bribes, due to insufficient evidence. Erdogan said it was part of a smear campaign.
“We need laws to preserve the historical fabric of Istanbul, but the aim now is driven by profit. History gets in the way,” said Mehmet Tanal, a lawyer and lawmaker in the opposition Republican People’s Party, who said many fellow members of parliament are landlords with ties to the real estate business.
He has submitted a bill to revoke the 10-year rental clause, arguing it violates the constitution’s protection of small businesses and basic rights and freedoms.
A country in flux, Turkey’s biggest anti-government demonstrations in a generation erupted last year over Erdogan’s plans to raze Gezi Park and erect a shopping mall at Taksim Square, adjoining Istiklal Avenue.
The Avramoglus are members of Istanbul’s tiny Karaite Jewish community of less than 100 people, who trace their roots in the city to the 12th century Byzantine era. Their faith is distinct from mainstream Judaism in that it rejects the Talmud text.
Called Rue de Pera in Ottoman times, Istiklal was favored by Christian and Jewish traders for its proximity to the port.
Located in the fashionable Beyoglu district, it is lined with Italianate edifices and served by a bright-red vintage tram. Though few Christians remain, churches grace Istanbul’s best-known street, including Santa Maria Draperis which owns Avramoglu’s shop and wants him out.
Kelebek’s windows pay homage to a bygone era, displaying lingerie such as “bullet bras” favored by 1950s starlets.
From overstuffed antique cabinets, Avramoglu sells locally made contemporary underwear. Loyal patrons return with their granddaughters, said Avramoglu, who employs a gentle touch with new mothers as well as men and women alike coping with obesity.
At the back of the shop, bags obscure a hole in the dark paneling made by a sledgehammer. This is an unofficial memorial to September 1955 when thousands of Turks, incited by false rumors that the home of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had been bombed in Greece, converged on Istiklal.
Soldiers stood by as rioters inflicted damage worth $50 million, or $400 million in today’s money. Most of the attacks were on Greeks, but almost a third targeted Armenians and Jews.
“All of the clothing was strewn along the street, covered in mud. Then the government’s tanks appeared and rolled over everything, then cleared the street,” said 91-year-old Borya Avramoglu, reverting to his mother tongue of Greek to describe his horror.
The violence set off the steep decline in Istanbul’s non-Muslim populations, impoverished overnight and fearing for their safety. Out of the hundreds of thousands in the 1950s, 65,000 Armenians, 17,000 Jews and just 2,500 Greeks remain.
“My family’s losses were severe,” said Ilya Avramoglu. “They collected what they could from the rubble, repaired the sewing machines. They borrowed money, and life began anew.”
Millions of people a week flock to Istiklal, making it one of Istanbul’s hottest retail districts, and commercial rents have tripled in dollar terms in the past 10 years.
Reflecting a more prosperous Turkey, the 1.5-km (one mile) avenue increasingly looks like shopping districts from Barcelona to Berlin, peppered with McDonald‘s, Mango and other mid-range brands that are crowding out most indigenous merchants.
Unlike some other European cities, the municipality has lax zoning rules for determining usage of space that do not balance cultural and commercial interests, said Akif Burak Atlar, secretary of the Chamber of Urban Planners in Istanbul.
“Rather than conservation, the local administrative policy’s priority is economic, helping to transform the area from a cultural hub into one for shoppers,” he said.
The Beyoglu mayor’s office did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Traditionally a hive of political activity, protesters for an array of causes mix with shoppers on Istiklal under the watch of riot police who are wary after the fury of the 2013 protests. Now saving Kelebek Corset is a rallying cry for activists.
“The store is part of our cultural heritage being swept away in a gentrification project,” said Elvan Kivilcim of the Beyoglu City Defense, which organized a march against the eviction.
More than 2,000 supporters have signed Avramoglu’s online petition asking Pope Francis to intervene and keep Kelebek Corset at its historic Santa Maria spot. An official at the Vatican Embassy declined to comment.
Rev. Eleuthere Makuta, who administers church properties, said cash-strapped Santa Maria could no longer operate like “a charity” and that the church “is not a museum”.
Makuta said Avramoglu should vacate the property which the church owns. “He has used the shop for 80 years so now it is time to give it to someone else,” said Makuta.
Avramoglu, who looks after eight family members, said he has voluntarily increased the monthly rent 12-fold since 2007 and is willing to pay another 70 percent, or 5,000 lira ($2,230) a month for the 20-square-metre shop.
One property agent estimated that it could fetch triple that at market prices. Avramoglu’s neighbors are now fast-food and cosmetics chains.
“The lives of three generations of my family unfolded on Istiklal,” he said. “Of course, one day this store must close. We Jews know about endings ... Still, we fight to avoid annihilation.”
Some of Avramoglu’s peers have given up the fight. Apoyevmatini, Istanbul’s last Greek-language daily newspaper, abandoned its offices in an Istiklal arcade above its historic printing press this month after 89 years.
While it will keep publishing, it could no longer afford the rent and feared it could soon be evicted under the 10-year rule, said editor Mihail Vasiliadis.
In September, the 120-year-old Pando’s Creamery in the nearby Besiktas neighborhood served its last dish of honey and cream made from water-buffalo milk.
Its owners are Orthodox Christians, descendants of ethnic Macedonians who fled intercommunal strife in the Ottoman provinces in the 19th Century for the safety of the imperial capital. Today a few hundred still live in Istanbul.
Inside the shop is a marble countertop painstakingly pieced back together after vandals smashed it during the 1955 riots.
“The countertop is as old as me. That’s the one thing I wish I could take with me,” said Pando Sestakof, 92, then laughed. “There’s little value given to old things like us anymore.”
Editing by Nick Tattersall and David Stamp