Sara Harowitz discovers the effects of a French-themed street in Istanbul, Turkey.
If you walk long enough through the flashy, seedy Istanbul area of Taksim, you’ll find something different. Past the bright lights, past the men yelling for you to eat at their restaurant, past the numerous tourist shops all selling the same items, past the bars thumping their bass, you’ll eventually come across it. Don’t be fooled by the growing silence as you walk deeper and deeper into the side streets of Istanbul’s Beyoglu District; it only means you’re getting closer. Go past the graffiti walls, past the quiet shop owners, past the run-down buildings, past the Turkish men pushing large wooden carts. And there, if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see it: French Street.
French Street (La Rue Francaise/Fransiz Sokagi in French and Turkish respectively) was, until 2004, called Algeria Street. Located in the Galatasaray area in the heart of large Beyoglu, the street was one of many run-down strips in the district.
In an attempt to re-vamp Beyoglu, its municipality decided to take one street – Algeria Street – and turn it into a French-themed street for both tourists and locals. Led by architect Mehmet Tasdiken, the two-year project completely transformed Algeria Street, modelling it after the French Montmartre period. Everything from the furniture to the buildings to the food became French inspired.
“The first examples of applications of western city planning approach started in Beyoglu. This place could become the starting point for westernizing of the region with its history, geography, ethnical and geographical properties,” the Beyoglu Municipality website states. “Furthermore its dominance of the Capital City and Bosporus had attracted all foreign embassies. The locals were rich and westernized.”
The Beyoglu District, formerly called the Pera District, has long had European – and especially French – ties. The French were the first European country to open an Embassy in Istanbul. Other countries followed suit soon after, but the French Embassy remains the most grand and popular among people living in and visiting the city. So for locals, the idea of a French-themed street was welcomed.
In the middle of French Street there is a popular restaurant called Chez Vous. Its owner, Emrah Izci, is only 21-years-old. After being a waiter at another cafe on the street and earning good money, he realized the potential of owning a restaurant and bought one of his own (a previous well-paying job in television gave him the means to do so). He says that French Street is about 70 per cent tourists and 30 per cent locals. However, his particular restaurant is 60 per cent tourists and 40 per cent locals. “People come here to eat something special,” he says, waving his hand around the street as if to show it off. He sits at one of his own tables, dressed in a blue button down shirt, a black vest and jeans.
Izci thinks the street is popular because the area of town was once inhabited by the French. The street is a tribute to the French culture that has long influenced this part of Istanbul. “More than 100 years ago, French people were living in this area,” he says. “French means, in Turkey, romance. Come sit, drink wine.”
Another reason Izci is not surprised by the street’s success is its seclusion. The street itself is only about 100 metres in length, crammed with restaurant after restaurant that accommodate both outside and inside seating. The colourful buildings are tall enough to make the street feel enclosed without being so tall that you feel like you are in a big city. Many restaurant canopies shade the walkway. The steps are narrow enough that only a handful people can walk shoulder to shoulder down them at once. To Izci, it’s “like a private garden.”
Tucked quite literally between two still grimy, run-down streets, French Street is indeed a private place of sorts. Twinkly lights hang off of arches at either end of the street, marking its beginning and end. The street is on a slant, with stone steps leading up and down the length of it. On both sides there are colourful restaurants, each one equipped with bright signs and colourful chairs, pillows, couches and tables that eagerly await customers. The men stand outside their restaurants and welcome you in, but not with the abrasive yelling that is so known for Istanbul. Century-old coal-gas lamps were imported from France especially for the street. But exit on either end and you’ll find yourself back in regular Beyoglu, surrounded by ugly graffiti and empty local shops.
Such a change in atmosphere is bound to spark debate. In a Sunday Times article titled, “Ditch the kebab, bring on Istanbul’s French Quarter,” writers Jill Hartley and Jeremy Seal called French Street exactly that: “extra proof that Istanbul has ditched the kebab.” However, it is worth noting that French Street is definitely not just meant for tourists. Lunch times on the street are quieter than evenings and weekends, with mostly Turkish women congregating then. The menus for the restaurants are printed in both English and Turkish.
Still, the issue that lies underneath the creation of French Street is undeniable. Istanbul is itself literally split into the European side and the Asian side and it takes an hour by train to get from one to the other. Many people on the European side of the city do not care for the Asian side; Izci himself even said, albeit jokingly, that you only go to the Asian side of Istanbul “to die.” But considering the historical French influence in Beyoglu, and the fact that a French Cultural Centre already stands there, people like Izci were not surprised when the government began working on French Street.
Within the districts, this particular part of Istanbul is called Galatasaray. Izci says that “everybody knows this area is the Galatasaray area, and the Galatasaray area is so French.” Therefore, he argues, changing the street to French Street was a no-brainer. It was especially welcomed because the street itself (not unlike the streets surrounding it) was very run-down.
“It was so bad 10 years ago,” Izci says. “Gypsies were living here. The government changed it.” Though contacted, no one from the Beyoglu Municipality was available by the time of press.
Neil Young, a Brit who has been to Istanbul many times and considers it one of his favourite cities, was first taken to French Street by his then-girlfriend, an Istanbul local. “I loved it,” he says in an e-mail. “The decor really stood out, not just the restaurants but the actual street itself. Cobblestone pavements with narrow alleys and comfy seating. Perfect place to relax and let the spirits flow.”
Young thinks it’s the younger Istanbul generation that is pushing Istanbul farther into its European roots. One walk down the main street in Taksim shows many large shops selling western clothing brands and other products. “Culturally, I think the younger generation of Turks have more interest in the west than in the Asian/Middle East culture,” he says. “I would say that European influences affect the city more.”
For Izci, who says that Saturday night reservations for Chez Vous fill up weeks in advance, this European turn of events is seen as beneficial to both him and his city.
“It is good because tourists come here and take pictures and say, ‘Oh, Turkey, I have never seen it like that!’” he says. “It’s good for the culture. Lots of good things are coming out of this.” He also sees the atmosphere of French Street to be less Middle Eastern and more European; a quality that suits the street’s female visitors well.
“You can ask my customers,” says Izci. “They can’t sit in the Taksim area anywhere else this safely. It’s so safe, so small.”
While throughout the rest of the crowded Taksim area women find themselves cat called and harassed by nearby men, Izci says, on French Street they have the opportunity to sit quietly and unbothered. And sure enough, just one table over from us sat two young women enjoying a light lunch and cigarettes without a single stranger approaching them.
But men find interest there too, as Young points out. He thinks projects like French Street are a great way to learn about other ethnicities.
“There were a huge variety of nationalities in French Street,” he says. “Lots of opportunities to learn and be inspired about different cultures.
One of those cultures is, undeniably, the French. French Street is a cultural catalyst in the ever-growing popularity of Istanbul, a breath of fresh air in the Taksim area and a unique take on French and Turkish culture. All that’s left to do is now stop and smell the crepes.