Forced gentrification plan spells end for old Roma district in Istanbul
The Guardian, Tuesday July 22 2008
Robert Tait in Istanbul
A lifetime of memories is wrapped up inside the rickety wooden house that Necati Celik, 76, has called home since he was five. It is where he lived with his wife and brought up his children.
But Celik is unlikely to fulfil his wish of seeing out the rest of his days tending his flowers outside the 100-year-old listed building - a classic late Ottoman structure in Sulukule, Istanbul. He cannot afford the extensive renovations that local officials are demanding as part of a controversial renewal scheme for the historic district, which borders the city's 5th-century walls and is home to Turkey's oldest Roma community.
"The municipality says we have no option but to agree to sell otherwise they will expropriate the property and put the money in the bank, giving it to us in instalments," he said. "All my family were here and I want to die here. I don't want to transfer it to the authorities but the mayor keeps saying, it's up to you to make a deal with us."
Celik's plight is shared by most of Sulukule's 3,400 impoverished residents, who are being forced out under a gentrification project conceived as part of Istanbul's preparations for becoming the European city of culture in 2010. Most of the district's houses are earmarked for demolition and many long-term residents have already left. City officials deem the work essential to transform a district blighted by drugs, prostitution, unemployment and illiteracy. But critics of the project say it threatens the survival of a Roma population that is thought to have been in Sulukule since the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, the sultan who captured Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, from the Byzantines in 1453.
Turkey's Roma community dates back at least 1,000 years. Romas have traditionally eked out a living as street hawkers, shoemakers, musicians and dancers in a close-knit environment rendered all the more intimate by Sulukule's ramshackle network of low-rise houses.
That historic setting will be wiped out, campaigners say, by a blueprint that proposes several new four-storey blocks as well as 620 modern villas, a hotel and facelifts for 45 listed Ottoman houses.
Sulukule's 503 homeowners have been offered the new houses at discount prices by the local Fatih municipality, which is running the regeneration project along with the city council. But the Sulukule Platform, a protest group fighting to save the district's heritage, says few residents can afford it.
Its criticisms have won the backing of Unesco, which this month warned that Istanbul could lose its world heritage site status if plans proceed in their current form. That has led Istanbul's mayor, Kadir Topbas, to promise a review but opponents remain unconvinced.
The authorities are already preparing to re-house Sulukule residents in a new development in Tasoluk, 30 miles away. Many owners and tenants have agreed to go, but campaigners insist many do not understand the agreements they have signed and may not cope in an alien environment.
"People are knee deep in ignorance," said Mehmet Asim Hallac, a community leader and one of five residents trying to halt the project by taking court action to prevent their homes being demolished. "This is a street culture and the people can't adapt to modern city buildings or blocks of flats. They spend most of their time outside their homes. They eat and drink outdoors and only go inside for proper family meals or to sleep at nights. Disrupt this with a modern lifestyle and they will be unable to breathe."
It is a far cry from Sulukule's heyday, a time when its street musicians and raucous nightlife attracted tourists until the authorities shut down its entertainment spots in the 1990s after concerns about law and order. "Every night was like the Rio carnival. There were 5,000 or 6,000 people here each night dancing and enjoying themselves," said Sukru Punduk, the president of Sulukule Roma cultural development and fraternity organisation. "We want to be included in the preservation effort alongside the houses. We do not want to be sent elsewhere."
Mustafa Demir, the local mayor, described the plan as a "miracle" for Sulukule's residents, 85% of whom, he claimed, supported redevelopment.
"This is an important part of the historic peninsula of Istanbul," he said. "The people are living in really squalid conditions. Most have no electricity or water. The infrastructure is inadequate and as mayor of this district you should definitely do something about such a chaotic situation."
Such sentiments ring hollow with some people in Sulukule. Guler Yilnaz, 51, whose home lies just outside the renewal zone, said the project was forcing her mother and other relatives out, leaving her alone.
"My family and I have been together since I was born," she said. "When they leave, what am I to do?"