Bustling Social Center, Now Empty
It started a few weeks back। One night Istanbul’s municipality workers came and started to pull chairs out from under the customers on the sidewalk bars of the Asmali Mescit neighborhood। Then they gathered the chairs and tables and started packing them up and loading them on a truck and shipped them away and impounded, or for the ones that had a license they were ordered to clear their tables and chairs from the sidewalks। The customers, some regulars other just random, who were passing time enjoying a cold beer outdoors to combat the summer heat, left slowly and went home. Perhaps, they thought that this was a random misunderstanding over permits between the bar owners and the municipality. However, many of the bars had permits. For example, Badehane had all the proper licenses, and the owner Bade has ran her business tip-top for over the last ten years, closely following the municipality’s regulations. There simply was no reason to clear the sidewalk. Now, Badehane, the first indoor-outdoor bar to open in the neighborhood is in danger of closing. While the indoor section fills up in the winter, during the summer you cannot pay people to sit inside. It simply is not a part of the culture. Forget the indoor smoking ban, however nice and cozy the indoors is, it simply can compete with sitting outdoors on a small narrow road, under the shadow of 19th century classic buildings. The municipality’s unilateral action also took a huge toll on workers. Where Bade on a normal evening employed 7-8 waiters, now only one or two are needed to hold down the fort leaving the others with no answers to how they will pay their bills.
Well for those who that thought that the sidewalks bars were being closed to the dangerous overcrowding on the Asmali Mescit streets, they were wrong. Bars, such as Urban and Pia (and some restaurants that serve alcohol), which have served their customers for easily over a decade slowly had their tables and chairs collected. They were clearly zoned for seating and do not hinder pedestrian traffic. Then there were the cafes in the trendy Cihangir. Finally, save for the Nevizade street, or a few other places, many outdoor restaurants also had their tables cleared. For now, many of Beyoglu neighborhood’s have turned into practical ghost towns.
So, why the ban on outdoor seating? Well, the municipality has not really given any clear answer; it seems that this was a drastic attempt to control the abuse of sidewalk use by non-licensed cafes and bars. However, for the bars and restaurants which have abided by the municipalities zoning the ban has turned into a nightmare. Due to the fact that no real answer has been given however it has led many to speculate. One rumor that has spread that this started off first as a payback by an angry Prime Minister Erdogan who was humiliated by raising an alcoholic toast to him as his motorcade passed near the Asmali Mescit neighborhood. Another rumor is that this is directly linked to the fact that it the ban happened almost parallel to the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Others claim that the municipality had been planning a crackdown for some time, and it chose the month of Ramadan out of respect for the business owners. In other words, they believed that it was best to implement these changes during the month that is usually slow due to the many people fasting during the day and refraining from alcohol consumption at night, as well as the exodus of Turks to vacation spots on the Aegean and Mediterranean coast.
Badehane's Regulars Now Enjoy Their Beer on Cardboard Boxes
Whatever the reason, it should be clear that this rightly can be seen as an infringement on the lifestyle of Istanbul’s secular residents and the municipality which is controlled by the ruling AK party should be extra sensitive when it comes to decisions which radically shift the social status quo. As it is, this act by conservative bureaucrats in the municipality is seen by many as confirmation of the curtailing of secular freedoms and an increasing display of religious conservatism. Further, punishing those who have abided by the municipality’s zoning laws is taking a huge economic toll on law abiding citizens who have work hard to ensure that Beyoglu remains the charming place it is. In short, while I have not been able to attend the protests against the banning of outdoor seating, they have my full sympathy. For me, it is sad to see the streets empty of people and the shutters of businesses closing their doors for good due to a short sighted move by Beyoglu’s municipality along with the support of the Greater Istanbul Municipality.