Şehsuvar Bey: for people who want to see a real street in İstanbul

Şehsuvar Bey Street used to be why İstanbul was beautiful, but the old houses have fallen into disrepair and the old neighbors have gone. These wooden houses are now very valuable, though officials had previously wanted to build modern apartment blocks in their place.

April 05, 2010, Monday/ 16:14:00
One by one, wooden houses lining İstanbul’s Şehsuvar Bey Street are being repaired and reinforced to keep them safe from rain, wind and, most importantly, devastation brought about by human hands.Once all the work is done on the 20 or so houses, excellent examples of 19th century civil architecture, Şehsuvar Bey Street will be beautiful. Moreover, this is one street that brims with life. Anyone wandering away from the Sultanahmet neighborhood into Kadırga and who does not reside here is clearly either lost or a tourist. That’s all there is to it. I’ve been here many times, so I can tell you this place is no concrete jungle but one filled with real -- wooden -- houses. Many of these dwellings have seen better days, of course, so the municipality has begun extensive renovations to infuse color into this worn neighborhood.

The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality Directorate of Conservation, Implementation and Inspection (KUDEB) is replacing the wooden frames and walls as well as the roofs of these houses. Once work on the main infrastructure is complete, KUDEB then works on the buildings’ façades. But what is KUDEB and why is it repairing these wooden houses?

KUDEB is tasked with protecting historic sites within İstanbul. KUDEB President Şimşek Deniz says they are very busy, with repairs taking place not only in Kadırga but also in the Süleymaniye and Zeyrek neighborhoods. Although Ayrancı Street, Parmaklık Street and Kayserili Ahmet Paşa Street are waiting for a facelift, Şehsuvar Bey Street was chosen to be first because it is a bustling Ottoman street where the neighbors go around arm-in-arm and smile at each other from their respective homes -- these people do quite a lot entertaining. There is any artificiality there.

At first glance, Şehsuvar Bey Street is very modest. It has a beautiful mosque, a historic fountain and is down to earth. While there, I spotted a father walking and carrying bread in a plastic bag, children playing a game as soon as they threw their backpacks off their shoulders and housewives conversing. Everybody knew each other, and greetings went from one door to the next. Hushed conversations were quite common among the street’s residents. I wonder if all of the houses will be repaired, and if so, what will happen then. After restoring eight houses, KUDEB began work on the ninth. It primary goal is to restore 20 houses by 2011. Once this is complete, work will begin on repairing and beautifying the roads, which will then be closed to traffic.

Meryem Yıldırım, a resident of Şehsuvar Bey Street, says of the construction, “It feels like an earthquake is rumbling through every day,” but that she’ll feel relieved when it’s complete. Yıldırım, who moved into her home here some 40 years ago, says this place was the İstanbul of old. She adds that if KUDEB does not begin work on repairing the houses, they will collapse, possibly with their residents inside.

She’s right. Şehsuvar Bey Street used to be why İstanbul was beautiful, but the old houses have fallen into disrepair and the old neighbors have gone. Yıldırım did not lock her door 40 years ago, when her old neighbors were still there. “I spent all my time in the summer sitting on the street with my neighbors. We used to take a cushion with us before going somewhere to while away the time. We prepared food and conversed well into the night. However, no one is left here now. Some of them bought new apartments in İstanbul’s Bakırköy, Etiler and Avcılar neighborhoods, while others died. They all came to regret having left the Şehsuvar Bey neighborhood and wanted to come back, but to no end.

These wooden houses are now very valuable, but some officials had previously wanted to raze them and build modern apartment blocks in their place. Yıldırım’s house is adorned with a Turkish flag and a blue bead to ward off the evil eye. Yıldırım had for some time rented out her house for use by Turkish series such as “Çemberimde Gül Oya,” “Karagümrük Yanıyor,” “Yalan Dünya” and “Elveda Derken.”

“I lived in a concrete jungle for approximately one year, but I couldn’t breathe there. Our wooden houses are refreshing. In the summer, the weather is not very hot. A coal-burning stove is enough to keep the place warm in the winter. Although three apartments have been offered to me, I will never leave my home,” Yıldırım says.