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Poor, minorities push back against booming Turkey's urban renewal

The economic boom in Turkey that is driving urban renewal is also forcing many minorities and the poor from their homes. Now, some are fighting back with lawsuits.

By Alexander Christie-MillerCorrespondent / May 9, 2011

Ahmet Bulut stands in his former cafe in the coastal city of Izmir, Turkey. The compensation he received for his cafe and two apartments – which are being torn down to make way for a park area – is not enough to afford one of the new apartments being built nearby.

Jonathan Lewis

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Izmir, Turkey

Standing in his gutted cafe, Ahmet Bulut ponders his sudden transformation from proud shop owner to scrap-metal gatherer.

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His Kurdish neighborhood, situated in this picturesque city overlooking the Aegean Sea, is being torn down to make way for a park and recreation area. He was paid 40,000 Turkish lira ($25,000) for his cafe and two apartments, but it was not enough for him to afford one of the new apartments built down the road.

Now he and scores of others comb the rubble, salvaging whatever they can find of value. "This is a terrible way to live," he says. "We are making our living from the destruction of our own community."

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The demolition of Mr. Bulut's neighborhood of Imariye is the latest in a series of urban-renewal programs driven by Turkey's rapid modernization.

While the economic boom is elevating the quality of life for many, critics say that authorities are driving some of the country's most persecuted communities further into poverty, while yielding handsome profits for developers and authorities.

Former residents like Bulut are offered housing on the fringes of cities, but the price tag is often too high. Now, urban planners and residents are fighting back with lawsuits both in Turkey and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

"In many cases there's no next step offered for these people," says Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International. "The fact that people [who] the state doesn't like are getting their rights violated isn't a coincidence."

In Ankara alone, around 74,000 acres of land are subject to planned, ongoing, or recently completed urban-renewal programs.

The most controversial project to date was the demolition of the Sulukule district of Istanbul, a poor area near the city center that has been home to a community of Roma since the Byzantine era. Sulukule was torn down to build luxury villas.

The target of another forced gentrification plan is Tarlabasi, close to the city's central Taksim Square, a poor but vibrant neighborhood of Kurds, Roma, and an unlikely community of transgendered sex workers.

Squatters now on prime land

The main targets are the country's semilegal squatter communities known as "gecekondus," meaning "settled at night." They were built under cover of darkness or on weekends. Once the builders occupy their homes, Turkish law prevents them from being summarily evicted.

From the 1950s onward, successive governments have legalized many of the neighborhoods. But now they lie on what has become prime real estate, attracting developers and prompting municipalities to level them.

An amendment to Turkey's property law that was approved last year has concentrated far more power in the hands of the country's housing development administration, known by its Turkish acronym, TOKI.

"This new law is giving unlimited scope to TOKI to take property from people without caring what happens to them," says Umit Ozcan, general secretary of Turkey's Chamber of Urban Planners. "Under the Turkish Constitution, people have a right to protection of housing."

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