Turkey: Istanbul gentrifies a 1,000-year-old Roma neighborhood

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jun 9 18:47:21 UTC 2008

Istanbul gentrifies a 1,000-year-old Roma neighborhood
'Ottoman villas' are going up, and the world's largest Roma settlement is
moving out  to suburban apartments.

By Yigal Schleifer | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the June 9, 2008 edition

ISTANBUL, turkey - Tucked right up against Istanbul's 5th-century
Byzantine walls, the Sulukule neighborhood feels more like a rural village
than an urban enclave. Its narrow, winding streets are full of squat,
colorful houses with uneven walls. Residents sit in front of their homes
sipping tea and chatting with neighbors. Occasionally a rooster struts by.
These days, the neighborhood also seems like a battle zone. Around every
corner, piles of rubble are all that remain of recently demolished homes.
Several of the neighborhood's few apartment buildings are half razed,
their facades marked with gaping holes, and remaining residents Roma, or
gypsies, whose ancestors have lived here for centuries feel besieged as
they face relocation to new apartment blocks on the outskirts of Istanbul,
25 miles away.

The Sulukule quarter, in the city's historic district, is undergoing what
the local municipality calls "urban transformation," a plan that calls for
flattening the entire neighborhood that houses 5,000 people. It would be
replaced with 620 "Ottoman style" villas modern parlance for upscale
residences. The project financed by the municipality and the Turkish
government's housing development agency is to be completed in time for
2010, when the rapidly growing and prospering Istanbul becomes the
European Capital of Culture for a year. The municipality's plan, though,
is encountering strong criticism inside and outside Turkey, with members
of both the US Congress and the European Parliament expressing opposition
to it.

For centuries some researchers believe even a millennium Sulukule has been
a predominantly Roma enclave, famous for its musicians and dancers.  It
even played a bit part in the 1963 James Bond film "From Russia with
Love," in which the debonair spy watches an alfresco belly-dancing
performance by the city walls. Sulukule's entertainment houses unlicensed
botes where carousing went on into the early morning made the area one of
Istanbul's best-known (some would say notorious) nightspots, until the
police shut them down in the early 1990s. Deprived of its main source of
income, the neighborhood has been in steady decline since. Today, it is
one of Istanbul's poorest areas.

In its glory days, Sulukule felt like Rio during carnival every night,
recalls Sukru Punduk, a local percussionist and bandleader turned
community activist. Reminiscing and plotting a civic defense of Sulukule
in the back room of a neighborhood teahouse, which serves double duty as
his office, Mr. Punduk says that when the entertainment houses were still
open, his family owned two, employing close to 80 people. "We were earning
a living and having fun," says Punduk, who chairs the enclave's first
community organization, the Sulukule Romani Culture and Development
Association. "The houses then were in better condition and people were
earning more. Musicians from other parts of Turkey would even come here to
earn money.

"Families have been here for three, four, five centuries. Think of this
neighborhood as a large, large family. We are a culture here. It's a
community that shouldn't be uprooted. We don't have another place to
return to," he adds. Certainly, Sulukule's residents defy the stereotype
of the rootless Roma.  Adrian Marsh, an Istanbul-based researcher, says a
Roma presence in the area can be traced to 1054, making it the oldest
gypsy settlement in Europe, if not the world.

"Historically it is different than other Roma settlements. Sulukule was
always seen by the Ottomans as a kind of fixed community, unlike other
gypsy communities that were seen as more nomadic. Other gypsy communities
in Turkey and Europe were not so settled," he says.

There are an estimated 3 million to 5 million Roma in Turkey, the world's
largest Roma community. Although they have faced less discrimination than
in other European countries, Roma in Turkey remain an economic and social
underclass. Turkish dictionaries only a few years ago removed the words
"tout" and "cheap" from the definition for the word "gypsy."

Mustafa Demir, mayor of Istanbul's Fatih district, which includes
Sulukule, describes the renewal plan as a kind of social project meant to
benefit the local population.

"The main goal of this project is to allow the people living in this area
to have a lifestyle that is in line with the 21st century and with
Istanbul being the 2010 European Capital of Culture. We are offering them
something more advantageous," the mayor, a former dentist, says during an
interview in his office.

Plans for the new Sulukule include a cultural center that will teach Roma
music and dance, as well as a hotel where Roma musicians will provide the
entertainment, says Dr. Demir. Property owners, meanwhile, are being
compensated financially and offered the opportunity to buy one of the new
villas at prices between $114,000 and $130,000.

"Their way of life will be maintained, for sure. There is nothing for them
to be worried about," he says.

But critics of the project believe Sulukule's residents have a lot to
worry about. The neighborhood is only one of many, mostly poor areas that
are being "transformed" in the swiftly developing city, frequently with
devastating results for the original inhabitants, says Korhan Gumus, an
architect and urban planner.

"The application of these urban transformation projects has sometimes been
very cruel, very unequal. The weak political actors are being pushed
aside," he says. "In this model of [urban renewal], there is no social
program or rehabilitation. There are only market operations."

Despite the municipality's assurances, locals and activists say simple
economics make it impossible for Sulukule's residents to remain. The
average neighborhood income is $320 per month, meaning few families can
afford to either rent or buy in the rebuilt Sulukule.

Hacer Foggo, a member of the Sulukule Platform, a group working on behalf
of residents, believes that out of 1,000 families living there, only 50
will remain.

Inside his tiny market on one of Sulukule's side streets, Mehmet Asim
Hallac tends to a steady stream of small children buying candy. At one
point, a woman comes in to buy a few scoops of sugar, for which she pays
the equivalent of 50 cents.

"You think she will be able to buy a small amount of sugar like that in
the supermarket out where they want to move us to? You think they will let
her buy it if she's a few cents short?" asks the barrel-chested and
bearded Mr. Hallac.

"The people living here are citizens of Turkey. Is it a crime for a
Turkish citizen to demand to have their lives improved without losing
their culture and their community?" he continues.

Back at his teahouse office, Punduk says that fighting the municipality
has replaced music as his main occupation. He's even contemplating
entering politics: "Something has to happen to improve the situation here,
definitely. We've been saying that for years.

"This urban transformation plan originally sounded like salvation to us,
but why does it not involve keeping the original people here, renovating
their homes and giving them the means to live here?"

Asked if there's room for the Roma in a gentrified Istanbul, the normally
fast-talking Punduk goes quiet.

"There's no room for us in the new Turkey. If they thought there was a
place for us, they would renovate this place and let us stay," he says,
after a long pause. "We want to live here. This place belongs to us."



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