Istanbul’s new address for contemporary art, Tophane is undergoing a transformation. For those who want to observe the process, now is the time.

She’s late, and unfamiliar with the area... Now which street was that gallery on? She looks around for someone to ask and approaches a friendly looking quiltmaker, the only person who seems not to be in a hurry at this hour when the others have already lowered their shutters. “Excuse me, there’s supposed to be a gallery around here. Can you tell me how to get there?” “Which one are you looking for?” “How many galleries can there be in this area?” “Around ten actually...” The quiltmaker gladly points her the way.

A spate of gallery openings is the clearest indication of the change underway in Istanbul’s Tophane district, a once neglected quarter that lies with its back nestled against Istiklal Avenue and its feet in the Bosphorus. Gentrification has gathered momentum over the past year especially as the district was snazzed up, becoming first more attractive and, inevitably, more expensive. Long story short, Tophane is one of Istanbul’s addresses, perhaps ‘the’ address, for contemporary art. But the story actually goes back farther than that.

Not long ago, the road winding down from Galatasaray Lycée was pretty much off limits, especially after a certain hour. You couldn’t be sure what to expect there. A result perhaps of the street’s name, Boğazkesen, literally ‘throat cutter’. The first to come were the galleries. Then in 1998 the spark was lit on the entrance level of the Apelyan Apartment Building at No. 5 Hayriye Caddesi when Nuran Terzioğlu, encouraged by architect Nevzat Sayın, turned a former carpenter’s workshop into Istanbul’s most romantic gallery.

By the late 1990’s the art scene in Istanbul was booming. Indeed, curator René Block has called it the ‘Istanbul miracle’. Making this miracle palpable, the Istanbul Biennial turned all eyes on Tophane when it took over the ‘entrepot’ buildings along the shore in 1995. But it would take the conversion of one of the Biennial venues, Antrepot No. 4, into a museum for the process to get firmly under way. Istanbul’s first modern museum opened four days ahead of the European Union summit on December 17, 2004. That evening the entire art community, young and old, hippy and well-heeled alike, traipsed across Tophane’s broad, smooth pavements to flock to the opening of Istanbul Modern. It was a pivotal moment for the district.

This was not the first museum to transform the area in which it was located. One of the best examples of this is Paris’ Pompidou Center, completed in 1977, which completely transformed the quarter known as Le Marais. Abandoned to its fate and excluded even from Haussmann’s 19th century renovation of the city, with the opening of the museum Le Marais suddenly became a hangout for intellectuals second only to the Latin Quarter. With its myriad galleries, shops and cafes today, it is one of the city’s centers of art and fashion.
The Tate Modern performed a similar function in London. A converted power plant in one of London’s poorer districts, the Tate Modern quickly became the city’s number one culture venue on the banks of the Thames. In the wake of the museum a number of galleries opened, followed in turn by theaters, design studios, boutiques, hotels, cafes and restaurants. Now everyone is unanimous that Tate Modern’s real success lies in its transformation of one of the city’s idle areas into a vital hub.
Istanbul Modern, with its exhibitions, cinema, interviews, workshops, libraries and cafes, has done exactly the same for Tophane by getting art lovers in the habit of going there and to the museum.  Immediately after the museum opened, the 9th Istanbul Biennial added the former Tobacco Depot to the entrepot buildings it had taken over earlier, thereby boosting the number of art venues in the district. The rest followed in a snowball effect: Hafriyat Karaköy, Rodeo, Outlet, Non, Pi Artworks and Galerist Tophane...

They say if you want the inside story about a neighborhood you should ask its taxi drivers and real estate agents. “This place is coming to life,” says Halil Efendi, a native of Tophane for 43 years. “It’s a revival based on art and artists. Mostly students from Mimar Sinan University come here,” he adds, “and foreigners too.” Kenan Abi, a real estate agent here for 21 years, says everything changed in 2005. “For two years straight rents skyrocketed. Places that used to go for TL 300 started going for TL 800. The tenants today are artists, writers, journalists, foreigners... The galleries have livened up the district. Sometimes the frenzy is actually a bit too much when they have their openings...”
One of the movers behind it all is Galeri Outlet owner Azra Tüzünoğlu. “Outlet is a candidate for playing a transformative role in turning the axis from Beyoğlu down to Fındıkli into an ‘art promenade’ on Istanbul’s cultural map,” she says. Meanwhile Non owner Derya Demir, who turned a gift shop warehouse into a gallery, is of the opinion that the district is going to become even more bustling in the future.

But the locals are a little down in the mouth these days, demoralized by all the talk of  ‘gentrification’, the restoration process, and the Galataport Project... Many Tophane denizens live for practically nothing in dilapidated old buildings that nevertheless exude joy and authenticity. But they can feel that change is in the air. “I wonder if we’ll be forced to move,” they ask, already knowing the answer. Twenty or thirty years ago they pulled up roots and moved here, and just thinking about having to leave the district they’ve grown to love and call their own makes them uneasy.
The merchants, in contrast, are on cloud nine. The greengrocer has gotten used to selling apples and pears one at a time. The vendor of dry beans across the park has reupholstered his cushions to make the place look more authentic. Wireless is available now at the toasted cheese sandwich shop. And the gift shops are doing a land office business. Seçkin Bey, who has significantly upgraded the items he sells, describes his commercial concerns at length, adding, “The intellectuals are taking an interest. There’s been a proliferation of galleries. This area is going to become another Cihangir. Everything will have been grabbed up in three or four years’ time.”

Seçkin Bey is right. A student dorm, a hostel and a suite hotel all opened in the twinkling of an eye on Boğazkesen. Rumor has it that some customers are looking for a place to open an apart-hotel, and a boutique hotel, an architectural design gallery, a chic cafe and 3-4 galleries are already in the works. Meanwhile the 1905-built Yazıcı Zade Apartment building on the corner opposite the Imperial Arsenal is preparing to become a posh residence. Istanbul Modern, the biennial and the galleries aside, when the Orhan Pamuk Museum opens in the near future, there will be no stopping this district. Gentrification is inevitable. If you want to see an urban quarter whose face is changing by the day, you’ll have to be quick, because it won’t be long before everything has been glossed over.

Leaving the crowds on Istiklal behind and making your way downhill from Galatasaray, you must browse the dusty offerings on the secondhand bookdealers’ shelves. Slow and easy. See the kilims in the green hut in the shade of a mulberry tree where Yeni Çarşı Caddesi turns into Boğazkesen. But beware, for you’ll be lured by the music and laughter emanating from Cezayir Sokak. Don’t be taken in. Stop at Galeri Apel, then Galeri Elipsis at the top of the Faik Paşa Yokuş. Backtrack to Galerist Tophane. Leave behind the windows bursting with flowers, laundry, kids and life in all its forms and proceed calmly. Pass the soup seller, the simit vendor, the quiltmaker, the repairmen of everything under the sun... You come upon the windows of Pi Artworks, Outlet, Non Rodeo and Hafriyat Karaköy... After a relaxing break at one of the narghileh cafes with steeped tea and a toasted cheese sandwich, you can start your big tour, a jaunt through Istanbul Modern. Almost done, as you steal a glance at Siemens Art and salute Academy painters . Finally, have a seat in Fındıklı Park and drink in the Bosphorus view while your weariness soars away with the seagulls.