Attacks, coup bring change to Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue

Istanbul (AFP) - For centuries, it has been the main commercial artery running through the heart of Istanbul, attracting thousands of people every day for shopping, entertainment or historic sightseeing.

But following a string of deadly attacks and the failed coup of July 15, Istiklal Avenue now faces an uncertain future, its shops boarded up and visitor numbers plummeting, its identity rapidly changing.

Located in Beyoglu in the centre of European Istanbul, the pedestrianised street is lined with elegant shops and cafes, stretching 1.5 kilometres (almost a mile) from Tunel, which overlooks the Golden Horn, to Taksim Square.

In March, the street was hit by a suicide bombing that killed three Israelis and an Iranian and injured dozens in an attack blamed on Islamic State (IS) jihadists. And three months later, at least 41 people were killed in a triple suicide bombing at Ataturk airport, causing tourism to plummet.

Now, once-lively areas along the street have fallen silent, with a string of shops shuttered, from big chains to boutiques, unable to make a profit in the face of high rents and declining revenues.

For Beyoglu mayor Ahmet Misbah Demircan, Istiklal Avenue will never lose its dynamism, with the current recession an unfortunate "reality" but only a temporary one.

"The terror attacks followed by the July 15 coup were actions aimed at dealing a setback to Turkey's economy," he told AFP.

"We are aware of the negative waves. It's only natural after all that has happened, and I personally do not see any sign it will have permanent repercussions," said Demircan, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Although some businesses would not survive because of the lack of profits, it would be unfair to stigmatise Istiklal Avenue and craft "disaster scenarios" out of it, he said.

- Historic hub -

Istiklal Avenue has a special place in the history of Istanbul and until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, was the heart of what seen as very much the European quarter of the city.

Then known as the Grande Rue de Pera -- The Great Street of Pera -- it formed the main axis of an area that at the time was populated almost exclusively by Europeans and Christians and not Ottoman Muslims.

For centuries, it was a hub for foreign merchants, diplomats and later tourists in Istanbul -- then known as Constantinople -- resulting in the construction of churches and embassy complexes that remain to this day.

Its character changed markedly after the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923.

Renamed Istiklal ("Independence") Avenue, the area gradually became exclusively Muslim Turkish with most of the remaining Christian minorities pushed out in the horrific anti-Greek riots of September 1955.

With Turkey's dynamic growth over the last decade, Istiklal was gradually taken over by the big chain stores at the expense of smaller shops that could not afford the high rents.

Many Istanbul locals gave the street a wide berth but it became a magnet for tourists, especially growing numbers from Arab countries.

But soaring rents have forced out many businesses, locals say. Real estate advertisements are pasted onto the front of empty buildings.

"Over the last decade, rents have skyrocketed irrationally," said Ihsan Aydogan, who owns property on the famed avenue.

With monthly rents ranging from $40,000 up to $400,000 (between 36,000 and 360,000 euros), Aydogan says he has been unable to find a tenant.

"There is no demand."

- 'Profile changing' -

But the violence and high rents are not the only factor, with the street's character changing starkly after the 2013 street protests against then prime minister now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

At the time, protesters played cat-and-mouse with riot police who fired volleys of tear gas in the side-streets of Istiklal.

Turks began to stay away but the area became attractive to Arab tourists, with restaurant names appearing in Turkish and Arabic, street buskers playing Arabic tunes and shisha cafes proving popular.

Hakan Eginlioglu, head of the Istanbul Tourist Guides' Chamber, said in the past, Istiklal was frequented by secular Turks and European tourists but it had changed over the years, drawing in large numbers of locals from conservative quarters as well as Arab tourists.

With the flow of Arabic tourists and conservative Turks, "the human profile at Istiklal is changing, so is the atmosphere and the demands," he said.

Architect Kadem Eksi said urban transformation projects including the demolition of old houses also affected the neighbourhood, turning it into a "construction site."

But it would not last forever, he said, because at the end of the day Istiklal is "the heart of Istanbul, a living city" and a significant brand.

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