Galataport: progress or regression?

Turkey’s popular contemporary art museum Istanbul Modern, designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano, has reopened its doors to visitors on May 4th after undergoing a major rebuild. Istanbul Modern, located in Galataport, Karaköy, is one of the most recent additions of the Galata Port Project, which strives to be Istanbul’s hub for arts and culture. 

Many residents believe that the museum’s offering of art collections, exhibitions, and educational programs is one of the few positive changes that have been made to Galataport in recent years. Since 2016, the Galata Port Project has reconstructed the historical city harbour in Karaköy into a magnet for tourists with flashy high-rise hotels, restaurants, and a world-class cruise ship port. These new building projects present various benefits for the city of Istanbul, but many of the residents living near Galataport negatively towards these gentrifying changes.

Galataport has been a booming industrial project, welcoming approximately 25 million visitors each year. Despite the money brought in through tourism, not all residents or shop owners are in favour of the changes being made to the historic port, and many feel the gentrification of the area can be harmful. Kadir (57), the owner of Hub 962, a coffeeshop in Beyoğlu, near Galata Port, shares his thoughts: “Since the renovation of the port, owning property here has become much more expensive.  The increase in clientele is positive, but [Galataport] has become one of the most, if not the most expensive area to live in Istanbul.” He also describes how he envisions the neighbourhood developing in the upcoming years: “If you come back here in five years, everything here will be rebuilt or replaced with hotels.”

Busra (35), a shop worker just outside the gated area of the port shares how he feels about the gentrification of his neighbourhood, “It may be a nice area for tourists, but everything is twice as expensive and life here is becoming less and less sustainable as locals.” Residents are increasingly being pushed out of their homes by rising rent and property prices.

Other residents in Galataport have voiced concern over the loss of traditional Turkish architecture since the start of the project. “The modern architecture that has replaced the cities traditional architecture has no history, no meaning. The high buildings and security barriers standing in-between the city streets and the port prevent us from being able to enjoy living on the waterfront,” says a female owner of a ceramics shop near the port. “I believe restoration is important, but not at the risk of erasing our culture,” she adds.

Yağmur Nuhrat, department head of sociology at Bilgi Ünivertesi in Istanbul, explains that gentrification in Galataport is not a new issue. She describes how this area is the prime example of gentrification in Istanbul, “In the last decade, the influence of the Gezi uprising, which was held by demonstrators against president Erdogan’s government, caused a lot of people to want to move from Beyoğlu to Karaköy. This meant the arrival of more restaurants, pubs, social areas, nightlife, and entertainment. Beyoğlu is growing rapidly in terms of migration and real-estate developments, for example. A dynamic worth mentioning is how change in Karaköy is dependent on the changes happening in Beyoğlu.”

Yağmur also mentions how there are no public places left in Istanbul where you can exist without having to consume something. “This idea of a commons where people can just ‘be’ without having to engage in commercial activity is rapidly disappearing.” In Galataport, what looks like a public space does not function like a public space. Upon arrival, visitors must pass through security and walk by luxury boutiques to reach the promenade. She shares how what the Galataport has become was not how the idea was initially advertised by developers: “What happened with Galataport is that it was advertised to become an approachable and accessible area where people could freely hangout on the strip, since the port was inaccessible for the public before this. This has not become the reality. To be there, you have to hangout within the premises of a shopping mall filled with chain establishments.” In terms of experiencing, imagining, and developing rights over the city, these kinds of projects are hurting residents because it is closing off capsules and making them only available in return for high consumption.