Izmir strives to breathe life into city’s old Jewish district

The Synagogue Street Project aims to ensure that the changes made is relevant to the residents of the street. Architect Zehra Akdemir's mission is two-fold: to ensure that the current problems of the street are solved by the local authorities and to gently direct the shopkeepers, with faith restored, toward the ultimate goal of creating a more attractive area without changing its essence

Küçük Karaosmanoğlu Hanı, a 300-year-old building that stands on the edge of İzmir’s Synagogue Street (Havra Sokağı) is buzzing with activity under the summer heat. Finding second life as a boutique hotel called l’Agora, it opened its rooms to the public about a month ago. Workmen are fiddling with iron bars and a mighty sun umbrella that will be placed in the old-style courtyard so the restaurant can also be opened. The cubicle-like offices in the ground floor are intended to become shops and offices, but only a few have been rented out so far. Outside, the traditional stores of the narrow street – grocers, butchers of sweetmeats, fishmongers and spice markets – are having a slow midday, partly due to the blazing heat and partly due to Ramadan.

At the corner of the courtyard, Zehra Akdemir, an academic from Gediz University and a specialist of user-centered architectural design, greets the residents of the street and ushers them into a conference hall.

Akdemir is leading a project titled “Synagogue Street Meets Design.” She has the sensitive task of ensuring that plans to renovate the street acquire the approval of residents, who are mainly tradesmen with shops in the area. “If we all work together, we can solve the problems of the street,” she tells an elderly shopkeeper as she leads him to his seat. “We just need to give it a chance.”

İzmir Metropolitan Municipality, working along with the newly established Mediterranean Academy (Akdeniz Akademisi), consider the renovation of the so-called Jewish quarter as a major pillar of their plans to cash in on İzmir’s historical heritage. The Synagogue Street plan fits into the larger strategy that divides İzmir into 19 sub-regions and develops individual social, historical and cultural projects for each one. For this ambitious and controversial project, the metropolitan municipality has drawn on the support of academics and civil society, particularly “İzmir, Our City Association” (Kentimiz İzmir Derneği), an NGO that brings together local heavyweights who have both the desire and, admittedly, the capital to bring improvement to the city.

The municipality and the association aim to breathe life into Kemeraltı by restoring old buildings and improving the present. Several buildings, as the Karaosmanoğlu and the Beit Hillel Oratory have already been restored. Others, such as the old synagogues near Havra Sokağı, are untouched and on the path to total collapse.

“Kemeraltı is one of largest and oldest open bazaars in the world,” said Uğur Yüce, the chairman of the İzmir, Our City Association in a video presentation on what the group wants to do. “But our aim is larger than that – to give tourists a reason to visit İzmir. Presently only about 3 percent of the foreign tourists who come to Turkey visit İzmir. We have made a strategic plan and now we will start through a large group of stakeholders and through different action plans.”

The role of Synagogue Street

“We consider the Synagogue Street as the aorta of the Jewish quartier, whose existence dates to 15th century, right after the Sephardi Jews have come to Turkey from Spain,” said Associate Professor Dr. Şeniz Çıkış, who chairs the Department of Architecture at the İzmir Institute of Technology. “We want to make it better, without turning it into something it can never be. This lively bazaar street can never be too snobbish nor too orderly. What it can be is a cross between Kadıköy Bazaar, Portobello or Vienna’s Naschmakt.” All three refer to historical bazaars, with more than 1,000 shops, that have brought their past glory to modern times.

Akdemir’s task is to ensure that the project will be relevant to the residents of the street. Her mission is two-fold: to ensure that the current problems of the street are solved by the local authorities and to gently direct the shopkeepers, with faith restored, toward the ultimate goal of creating a more attractive area without changing its essence.

“Today, Havra Sokağı is a shopping street visited by the elderly and lower income groups.  Very few women, children or young people are seen there – let alone tourists,” said Akdemir.  “There are things we can fix right away to make the street more attractive, and there are also things that the tradesmen have to do themselves.”

Quick fixes and not-so-quick issues

Some of the quick fixes are already on the way. In the first “participatory” meeting, the shop owners complained that the bus stop was too far away, and the municipality representatives who attended the second meeting asked them to make suggestions on where the bus stop could be relocated. More complex is to solve the problem of stray cats and dogs or garbage. The municipality says that a detailed infrastructure plan is on the way, but for the time being, the shop owners have to take more responsibility in putting their garbage in a container 100 meters from the shops.

“We want to bring a certain organization to the streets, from the way we display the products to the lighting, from the shades to the streets,” said Akdemir. “But we want the whole process of change to be directed by the people of the street.”

But thinking that the nostalgic Synagogue Street can be restored to its old glory may be overly optimistic. To begin with, it is no longer predominantly Jewish in character. The shops have long changed hands – and although certain stores, like a tripe butcher, might remain within the same family for years, the street no longer has the “family” sentiment anymore.

The loyal clientele is aging and their children and grandchildren are not coming to shop in the old center. “If ten years’ time, we will have to move on to home delivery because none of our customers will be able to come out,” said one shopkeeper.

As a next step, Akdemir will work with a design team who will upgrade the image of the shopping street.  They will work on new lights for the street (shopkeepers complain that the darkness of the street on winter evenings discourage customers from doing their shopping after work) and some sort of unified, or at least coordinated shades. Then she will develop a manual for the displays that respects both aesthetics and food safety for the diverse stores, with prototypes that they can duplicate.

Their solutions, our design

Akdemir insists that her role, as an architect, is evolving to that of a translator between the users and the local authorities. “At the end of the day, it will be the people of the street who will use the designs or not. Often, they are the ones who come up with solutions to their needs. We, for our part, help develop the design,” she said. “We hope that our micro-touches will help bring long-term solutions and that the participatory model that we have developed here can be used elsewhere, too.”

This article was punlished on HDN on July/02/2016