By Victor Kotsev, Special for USA TODAY
ISTANBUL - An American woman who vanished while on a photography vacation alone was staying in one of the more dangerous parts of the city.
Sarai Sierra, the mother of two young children, had a room in a small basement apartment with bars on the windows and weak lighting. She was the only tourist in the building in a district where drug dealing is not uncommon.
"If you want to see hell, just go a few streets down," said Juliette Denptos, a French woman who lives on Komurcu Zeynel Street, where Sierra stayed. "The police may be near, but they don't protect us much."
The landlord of the apartment declined to comment, saying he was advised by police and his attorney not to speak to the news media or anyone else about the matter.
Sierra's husband, Steven, a New York City bus driver, and her brother, David Jimenez, arrived at Ataturk International Airport on Monday to join the search and try to help police. Istanbul investigators have been canvassing the neighborhood where Sierra stayed to search for clues to her disappearance one week ago.
The two men hurried through the airport after they were greeted by several Turkish reporters asking questions.
"It was a long flight, 10 hours, but it was OK," Jimenez said, adding that they were heading to the U.S. consulate. "We don't know what we are going to do."
Sierra, 33, was on what she described to friends as a "dream trip" to the region to photograph architectural highlights of the city. She arrived Jan. 7 and was due to return home Jan. 22 but was not on her scheduled flight when it landed in Newark, N.J.
Her family says she was last in contact the day before she was to depart, telling her sister she was going to photograph Galata Bridge, not far from where she was staying in the Beyoglu district of the city.
The landlord of her Istanbul apartment said he found her belongings and her passport when he went to check on her Tuesday, Steven Sierra said. Her two children, ages 11 and 9, do not know their mother is missing, Jimenez said.
The Beyoglu district is an upscale area in the historic heart of the city that features modern Taksim Square, a spot full of shopping, galleries and nightlife.
But Sierra stayed in Tarlabasi Street, a few blocks from the busy strip. Its narrow lanes, often deserted, are lined with run-down three- to four-story buildings. The pavement is broken, and trash is strewn about in the street.
People in the neighborhood recognized Sierra's photo and said police had been asking questions about her.
Rape and murder, especially of foreigners and tourists, is rare here, according to the Istanbul police department. No one interviewed, including foreigners and locals, could recall a situation in recent years in which a foreigner had vanished. More common are robbery and muggings, scams and harassment, mostly verbal, of lone women walking the streets in this predominantly Muslim country.
Even though this district is known for its trade in sex and heroin, locals said they don't feel afraid.
"There is no danger," said Onur Tekin, a street musician in his early 20s who lives around the corner from where Sierra stayed. "If you connect to people, you are fine."