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

'Ottoman villas' are going up, and the world's oldest Roma settlement is moving out – to suburban apartments.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2008

Relocation: Roma families that have lived in the Sulukule quarter of Istanbul (image 1) will be relocated to modern suburban apartment blocks (image 2) 25 miles away.

Yigal Schleifer

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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.

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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 boîtes 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.

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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.

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