• Somewhere Between 20 and 200 Years Old

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    October 18th, 2010adminCrafts, Folk Culture, Gypsies, History, Imagination, Istanbul

    A photo taken, near my friend's flat, in the slum district of Tarlabaşı -- a mixed neighborhood, including families, petty thieves, prostitutes, small businessmen, Kurds, expatriates and an assortment of Turks.

    As I’ve written in the past, history is plainly different here. In America, I fantasized about the rollicking saloon past of San Francisco and Portland. I wondered what New York City and Washington D.C. looked like 200 years ago. I imagined the old factories of Chicago, the blues joints and robust German immigrants and newly arrived Greeks and Irishmen. But did I feel the history? Could I really conjure it? No.

    In the United States, economic progress was so fast — and so great — that cities barely resemble their past, barely have remnants of even 150 years beforehand.

    Drying clothes in Tarlabaşı in the last days of summer.

    In Istanbul, I sense history. I don’t “feel” it completely — so much has been expanded or redeveloped. But history is also very much alive. Because it never completely went away.

    A man, hand-sewing blankets, in his shop, which overlooks hip art galleries, featuring political art work. The juxtaposition can be fascinating or, if you see it every day, totally average.

    For example, I live in Mecidiyekoy, a very modern district. My bedroom window overlooks the new Trump Towers, glossy and boastful elements of the modern age. But what’s directly below the towers?  Burnt, charred homes, with cardboard roofs, occupied by gypsy families, living (more or less) like they did a century ago. I pass some of the gypsy families every day. They smoke cigarettes, play cards, and keep an assortment of animals — chickens, roosters, dogs, cats. They are a part of the neighborhood — just as much as the corner store, mosque or police station.

    Of course, there is a huge textile industry in Istanbul and most people here just use factory-made, mass-produced items. But these shops exist, too -- and that's important.

    And this is not tokenized history.

    When I visited friends in New York City, I saw advertisements for a museum (and tour) of former 19th century tenement life — interesting but also long gone. Also, if you’re visiting the Western states, the Lonely Planet guides like to recommend former brothels and other former venues of licentious activity. But how silly, right? How strange. The unruly, anarchic and passion-filled past is made into common tour. You’re left to wonder.

    Perhaps if I lived in Appalachia, I would feel differently — maybe history would be more ever-present. But, in urbanized America, history seems so hyper-branded.

    Of course, there is historical tourism here. And waiters wear gimmicky Ottoman clothing, at times, mimicking a time that is long gone.

    But there is also a tremendous sense of cultural and historical preservation. In Istanbul, history is a continual thing — something that extends so far back, and still seems so ever present, that the crumbling buildings and old folk songs seem relevant — somewhere between historical and contemporary.  And, as a history nerd, I can’t help but feel enchanted by the intermingling of past and present here.

    A watermelon cart in Cihangir, a yuppie/bohemian district bordering the Taksim area. I also took this picture walking home from a friend's flat. In Istanbul, you don't need to look for photo moments -- they're constant.

    Here's Cihangir -- modern, pastel and safe. Contrast Cihangir with Tarlabaşı...

    I know I have written multiple times on the old/new element of life here. But I’m honestly not tired of it yet! Perhaps it’s my favorite part of Istanbul. So in this blog, I’ll come back to it, again and again …just like my daily life …walking up and down streets and passing faces and doorways that could be 20 years old, or 200 years old — as if it even matters at all.

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