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.

Jonathan Lewis
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
Some of the 2,000 buildings being razed to make way for a park. The residents have appealed to a European court for help.

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

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."

In February, the chamber won the right to challenge the amendment in Turkey's highest court, and it is currently fighting 326 cases relating to housing and planning law violations by TOKI.

Not far from Izmir's medieval castle, nearly three-quarters of Ima­riye's 2,000 homes that were earmarked for demolition are already gone. But the neighborhood is still a hive of activity.

Children as young as 8 work in gangs, smashing concrete to beat out steel reinforcing rods. People strip their homes of windows, doors, electrical wiring – anything they can reuse.

The Izmir Municipality says the neighborhood is being demolished because it's built on unstable ground. Its plan is to turn it into a park and recreational area. But with its central location, panoramic views, and cool summer breezes, many believe developers will inevitably move in.

"I'm sure in a few years' time they will develop this place again and build new homes, but they will be for rich people," says Imariye's mayor, Abdulaziz Turan. "They won't be for the poor people who live here now."

Most of Imariye's residents are from Turkey's disaffected Kurdish minority, who fled to Izmir from the province of Mardin during the 1990s when the Turkish Army burned villages during its conflict with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party.

"You are seeing the current condition of the Kurds," says Bulut. "They did it to us in Mardin, and they are doing it again here."

That pattern is playing out across Turkey, says Amnesty's Mr. Gardner. "Dispersing these communities is an attempt to disrupt their identities and their opportunity for collective action," he says.

'Illegal' may mean 'unsafe,' too

But in an earthquake-prone country filled with many poorly built homes, some say there is an urgent need for urban renewal. Some 70 percent of homes in Istanbul are illegally built, according to Murat Balamir, a specialist in urban planning at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

"Negligence in building activities is particularly significant in unauthorized construction," he says. "Cities in Turkey are extensive 'risk pools' not only for their unreliable structures, but also due to other attributes, including deficiencies in accessibility, infrastructure networks, and open spaces."

But Geoffrey Payne, a London-based urban development consultant who has studied gecekondus for more than 30 years, argues that the neighborhoods grew up in a way that ensured community cohesion and the opportunity to move up in life.

"The brilliant thing about it was that everybody was making money," he says. In the past, small-scale developers moved in to build formal housing, generally offering residents a stake in their projects in the form of apartments – unlike today, when they are pushed out with little recourse.

As in Sulukule and Tarlabasi, residents of Imariye have applied to the ECHR for compensation. But for now, many like Bulut are left to salvage scrap amid a drive for modernity that may leave them once again on the fringes of cities and society.

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