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.

Yigal Schleifer
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
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.

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 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.

• • •

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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