Last week, fleeing building work, I moved from my home on a hill near Istanbul’s Taksim Square and crossed the Golden Horn to live in a friend’s house in the area of Fener just a stone’s throw from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the church of St George that’s the seat of the Archbishop of Constantinople - a leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians.
What flanks this holy compound is a neighbourhood of tall, colourful terraces – so narrow that some are more like towers than houses. Here, clothes lines crisscross the steep cobbled streets where men chop kindling and children play hopscotch. Many of the houses are dilapidated empty shells – the ornate wooden doors are chained and padlocked shut while the windows are blown in, open to the elements.
The Greek community - and the Jews that also lived here in neighbouring Balat - have largely left. Though they lived in the city for hundreds of years under the Ottoman Empire, events of the 20th century saw the large-scale migration of Istanbul’s minorities. Many Greeks shipped out as late as the mid-1960s as the military government closed Greek schools and seized property. With them, their trades, traditions and customs also disappeared.
Many Turks will tell you that they consider this exodus a great loss to Istanbul.
Diversity is now a coveted aspect of many urban centres and it is perhaps an irony that it is lacking here – in a city known for its ability to straddle Eastern and Western cultures.
Even so, diversity is certainly on the Turkish government’s agenda.
Only this week the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, spoke of his vision for a new Middle East where Arabs, Kurds and Turks would flourish side-by-side. Of no mention were Orthodox Christians who where once so central to life in Turkey.
Today, some of the buildings in the Fener neighbourhood are being restored. Like my temporary home, they have been lovingly renovated and brought back from near ruin by incomers or creative Turks seeking a unique property and respite from the rampant gentrification seen in other areas of the city.
Yet the neighbourhood’s malaise will not be solved by an influx of well-heeled creatives. Spiffing up these beautiful forlorn townhouses might give a lift to a very poor area but it will not bring home the Greek families that left.
Of course, Fener’s vacant buildings need preservation but it’s the cultural fabric of the area that really needs attention.
Its gothic red-brick Greek high school looms over the mouth of the Golden Horn but is empty. Until its classrooms are occupied and the staff at the Ecumenical Patriarchate feel welcomed and supported by the government, Fener will be a ghostly reminder of the day that its inhabitants packed their bags and left – and of the great value diversity brings to our cities.
Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.