Issue 6

The invisible of Istanbul

By Julian Sayarer

In late May of 2013, protesters were forcefully evicted from a site in Taksim’s Gezi Park, where they had gathered to protest against one of Istanbul’s remaining green spaces being transformed into a shopping mall. The brutality of the eviction sparked nationwide protests that in turn attracted international media attention. The following essay was written in February 2013, focusing on the residents of a nearby area known as Tarlabașı. Both instances demonstrate the close relations between Turkish government and the construction industry. The protest movement at Gezi Park was led by educated individuals with a grasp of public relations, social media, and the English language. Despite the similarity of their cause, and the urgency with which they fought it, the residents of Tarlabașı have had to make do without most of these resources. 




It is a strangely brutal intimacy, that when the metal scoop of a digger pulls down the wall of a home; the whole street gets a look at the wallpaper, the lampshade, the decorative tastes of a one-time resident. In Tarlabașı, the pigeons are perched between the floorboards of one flat and the ceiling of another, their wings beat up the air as a street cat makes its way through the ruin, and rubble clatters down through the cross-section of the open apartment block. This is what is known as a renewal zone. Most of the buildings are shuttered up with shining sheets of corrugated aluminium, and when the midday sun is highest in the Istanbul sky, light cascades from all around, and the backstreets glow with the same, celestial promise as the hoardings of the developers. For those who have been to Istanbul, the chances are you’ll have walked no more than a good stone’s throw from Tarlabașı, along Istanbul’s central shopping thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi. There, in another world, you see the electronic goods, boutiques, stores and galleries of the classes whose money will make transforming Tarlabașı a profitable venture. Istanbul has been made a victim of its own success. In recent years, Turkish television has become a national export, and images of the city are consumed around the Middle East and Caucasus in much the same way as the western world consumes Manhattan. An aspirational culture has been attached to the city, it has been made desirable, and so Tarlabașı will move from what was a refuge for the poor into a playground for the wealthy. As in London and Berlin, central Istanbul is giving birth to the luxury flat, perhaps the most loaded words in urban development, and ever the final child of gentrification. If the wealth of this speculation ever trickles down to Tarlabașı’s old residents, it won’t be until long after they’ve been evicted. In some sense, this was the macabre price of Istanbul being made 2010’s European Capital of Culture.



If this story sounds familiar, what follows is the Turkish version of the urban development parable. Tarlabașı bears many of the hallmarks of what in Turkey is known as a gecekondu, which translates roughly as 'landed overnight'; if you can establish a home on unused space, or in an empty property, and without getting caught, then it is yours to live in. As such, gecekondu are known for springing up from one day to the next. In as much as this, there is a likeness to squatter’s rights, but where the likeness ends is that gecekondu and their dwellers are not deviant; they are neither marginalised nor frowned upon, and where they are, it is with only a general snobbery towards poverty, rather than on specific account of housing arrangements. The tolerance is judicial as well as social; successful gecekondu have expanded into satellite cities with populations in the tens of thousands; residents can apply for incorporation as a recognised settlement, and this sort of recognition ensures that gecekondu residents are courted by politicians as a source of votes. It is an implicit statement on democracy and homeownership, and the primacy of property, that whereas western voting necessitates a recognised address, Turkey has traditionally extended the franchise into its informal communities. These gecekondu have fulfilled the state’s role as a provider of housing, exerting a downward pressure on living costs, and ensuring a constant supply of cheap labour for Turkey’s industrialists. If gecekondu have until now underpinned Turkish enterprise, then the redevelopment of Tarlabașı represents a new direction, the settling of a boutique feudalism, a culmination of gentrification, the wealth from which represents a one-time gain that will immediately leave the area. The new development will destroy the local economies and employment opportunities of the old gecekondu, incoming residents will buy homes marketed through a vision of freedom and inclusion, a consumer utopia founded on an invisible process of exclusion and dispossession.

Tarlabașı is no stranger to this kind of injustice. In 1984 the area witnessed the demolition of over three hundred Levantine houses, razed to make way for the six-lane highway of Tarlabașı Boulevard. Behind a constant roar of traffic and speeding cars, poverty was ghettoised between a road and the Golden Horn, the body of water that breaks from the Bosphorus. Dislocated from the dispersal of wealth, from the trade and tourism of central Taksim, Tarlabașı and its rundown streets came to offer a home to the otherwise homeless. Look deeper into the twentieth century, and you find many of the property owners who will now be moved on were themselves beneficiaries when post-Ottoman ethnic tensions saw the forced removal of Greeks, Armenians and other non-Muslim populations, houses abandoned or sold cheap and quick as minorities were unceremoniously repatriated. If the twentieth century was one of nationalism and ethnic division, what now plays out in Tarlabașı, with its populations indiscriminately cleared, is one of the creedless cleansings of the 21st. The sterile language of residents and developers is no match for the graphic nature of what is happening here, and yet the process somehow elides terms of victims and aggressors. In Tarlabașı’s deadened streets, you find the collateral damage of an acutely neoliberal form of economic violence, one that cannot be effectively addressed by any of the traditional vocabulary on persecution. United in poverty, the old, multi-ethnic communities have made their way from their homes, proving as they leave that Huntington was wrong, and Marx was right.     



Beginning to end, the story of Tarlabașı’s redevelopment tests one’s commitment to objectivity; if there are two sides to this story, it is that of the weak and that of the powerful. Stray dogs pick in and out of the shuttered-up housing, the sheet aluminium is blackened, smoke stained above piles of ash where bonfires have been set. Sunflower husks litter doorsteps like tiny, visual recordings of the hours of conversation held there by those who still remain. A toddler is propped against her mother’s hip, walking down shadowy alleyways where once children played football and an old man in a goatskin jerkin sold fruit from a cart. Amongst the wreckage you hear the child’s voice, faint in the silence as she tells her mother she’s scared.

Everywhere is the smell of rats. In 2005, the Turkish government passed Law 5366, Renewal Law, causing even the ordinarily apolitical employees of UNESCO to raise concerns about the legal basis it afforded quick-and-easy redevelopment of historically sensitive sites. 5366 now hovers like some emotionless reaper over a half dozen areas of Istanbul; the number represents a process all but impossible to reason against because it was scarcely human to begin with. In 2006, under 5366, Tarlabașı was made a renewal zone. In 2006, 278 buildings in Tarlabașı, 208 of them listed, were made a renewal zone. In 2006, the Turkish government passed a law permitting foreigners to buy property in Turkey. The chief executive of the project’s lead contractor, GAP Inşaat, is the son-in-law of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey; in Tarlabașı, Turkish corruption is on show at its eye-watering best. One justification for the renewal has been the creation of earthquake-proof housing, properties that will withstand the Big One, of which Istanbulers still live in fear. For all the words, observers say the homes to which people will be removed are being built quickly and from cheap materials. Overseeing the project in Tarlabașı, and sites like it across Turkey, is the Housing Development Administration (TOKI); now the country’s largest landowner, with 65,808,293 square urban metres brought under their control since 2003. Without any hint of regulation, TOKI acquires land for private sector development, and in so doing Turks have been left to watch their state become only an administrator facilitating a historic transfer of common land into private ownership.

This public-private relationship has been still more apparent where residents resisted their fate. In Başıbüyük district, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, police tore down the barricades formed by residents protesting demolition. After dispersal, police kept a round-the-clock watch over the land, and so a taxpayer-funded body bore the security costs of a private sector developer. It is ironic that the neoclassical buildings of old Tarlabașı were first built as an effort in social housing, a cheaper accommodation for those civil servants who could not afford to live on the prestige properties of Grand Rue de Istiklal, as Istiklal Caddesi was known at the colonial turn of the twentieth century. In a little more than a century, the principle of city centres as places for the less well off has been bleached from Europe’s urban landscape.

All the buckshot against gentrification, however, is to make one significant assumption - that the redevelopment will ever be completed. Over the course of a decade, Istanbul has been transformed into one sprawling building site, the crown jewel in the portfolio of enormous Turkish construction companies operating throughout the Middle East and beyond. Turkish firms have constructed ice rinks as far afield as newly oil-rich Kazakhstan, and billions of dollars worth of Turkish-run projects were suspended when in 2011 the Libyan civil war grew in intensity. GAP Inşaat, who sold their Tarlabașı plots before residents were even aware change was afoot, are notably secretive about where the financial backing for the project emanates, and the cranes and lorries that cast shadows over Istanbul, and thunder down its roads, have in them the ominous foreboding of Turkey’s highly leveraged, construction-led economy. Few here heed warnings from the world’s mortgage markets, or the ballooning value of Tokyo real estate portfolios prior to Japan’s 1992 pop, the start of the longest recession in modern economics, and the best indication that construction is ever the last refuge of the bubble. The same message should already have been driven home by events closer to Istanbul; some five miles as the crow flies from Tarlabașı, a renewal project in the district of Fikirtepe has already witnessed the bankruptcy of its lead developer. Work in Fikirtepe has long been at a standstill, the community evicted, only an indefinitely postponed construction site to show for their pains.




If this sounds hopeless, then that is only one side of the story; the ugliness of the Tarlabașı case has offered glimmers of the human spirit at its most dignified. The only thing as marked as poverty in Tarlabașı was diversity. With most residents wholly apolitical, these were people politicised by necessity, their one shared ideology being that as humans they were supposed to have had rights to a home. When Turkey’s Kurds, often conservative Muslims, fled war between the army and rebels in the east of the country, they came to Tarlabașı. The black Africans of Sudan, who escaped Mujahidin fighters and sought safety in another Muslim country, came to Tarlabașı. Gypsies have lived in its streets since Ottoman times, and the transsexual prostitutes of Istanbul found a refuge from rents they could not afford because their transgender bars them from all employment outside the sex trade. By virtue of its informal housing and economies, this shabby, rundown area provided a mongrel community with the homes they were denied elsewhere. In a brand management exercise of which any advertising agency would have been proud, the people of Tarlabașı pitched themselves as Istanbul’s true cosmopolitans, a community that added value to the city. United as victims, a residents committee was formed, and with admirable ease, people overcame differences of race, religion and sexual persuasion to find a deeply human and overwhelmingly common cause.

These people are not, however, the ones who tell me Tarlabașı’s story. That task that falls to Özlem Ünsal, one of a number of Istanbul academics who have written at length about their city’s renewal projects. Ünsal is the sort of individual whose involvement was essential to the resistance, someone able to speak in the language of officialdom, and perhaps uncomfortable evidence that a middle-class education is an integral part of a working-class struggle. The two of us meet in an Istanbul café, where Ünsal tells me of the spokesman who assessed lost earnings on behalf of Tarlabașı property owners…

“he conducted every meeting with a calculator, forever punching numbers into the screen, assessing the income lost to property owners through empty rooms… dereliction… the collateral damage of demolition.”

A short woman with thick spectacles, animated with the energy of her cause, Ünsal talks with feeling about how she pleaded for the rights of the tenants, the basic – unquantifiable – humanity of a home. Raising her hands upwards, Ünsal tells me the response of resident’s spokesman, “how am I to support the cause of tenants, without first supporting property owners?” Beginning to end, the rights of those who actually lived in Tarlabașı had to be expressed in the monetary terms of developers. Once it has been established that communication is to be in the language of numbers, the human case for Tarlabașı, and places like it all over the world, has already been lost. What should be a trump card does not even make it to the table.

As our conversation continues, Ünsal tells me the tale of the resistance, of how resolutely it all began, with tenants and property owners establishing a pact of non-communication with developers, a platform of collective bargaining to be conducted only in solidarity and through the residents committee. The committee was made party to development meetings, drew up a list of their demands for involvement with reconstruction, and yet when the municipality and GAP Inşaat proceeded to ignore those demands, the overwhelming sense of hopelessness began to cause fractures. Confronted by the power of the machine set against them, divisions began to surface. Transsexuals accused the Kurds of living like animals and neglecting the area, Kurds and Turks in turn accused the transsexuals of bringing the sex trade to Tarlabașı’s streets. Observing the schisms, developers started contacting absentee landlords, Islamic foundations with property and endowment holdings – known as vakıf - became involved and, wary for their futures, tenants jumped at worthwhile living opportunities that presented themselves elsewhere in the city. Stripped of rental incomes, landlords started talking sales, and in a matter of weeks the residents committee divided, and promptly fell. What is most striking in Ünsal’s account is that she talks of those she interviewed for her research as “informants”, in so doing capturing the sinister nature of the case, caught somewhere between a legal wrangle and a criminal case, a fight to which few victims were willing to lend their names publicly.

Victims though these people might be, it is important to know that Tarlabașı was no dream of urban living. That crime existed is undeniable; that streets were often unclean and many of the buildings rundown goes without saying. I have friends who were burgled when they lived here, walking home after dark we would beware footsteps too close behind us, and during winter months, at five in the afternoon you begin to whiff the thick cloud of coal smoke as residents fired up stoves for another night in buildings of perishing cold. The issue at hand is not the idea of change so much as the chosen methods, and what foremost incriminates the development is its disinterest in those who can no longer call Tarlabașı their home. Petitions by residents to conduct their own building improvements were repeatedly rejected, or else met by municipal demands that made the cost prohibitive. Where poor residents were barred by historical sensitivity from improving their neighbourhood, a construction company has been given permission to tear it down and start again; for a fraction of the cost, the poor quality of housing stock might have been improved a hundred times before it became necessary to raze and rebuild anew.




Across a week in Istanbul, I spend a handful of evenings in bars barely four hundred metres from Tarlabașı ground zero. I drink the German beers that wily publicans have started to import, and I remain painfully aware that in many ways, whatever my Turkish background, I am part of the problem at hand. I talk with others about the Tarlabașı development, and listen to their focus on the shabbiness of the area, its unwelcoming feel, and suggestions that resistance failed because solidarity buckled. In each indictment it is apparent that the poor, staring at their own oblivion, are nonetheless accused of failing to uphold standards of virtue and determination, standards that would never be expected of those better off. Even as people are made homeless, removed from what little they had in the world to call their own, the well-meaning, left-leaning camps of Istanbul public opinion look to justify what has happened. They find – with comparatively little bother – the silver lining in this injustice. Here at the End of History we extend such respect to wealth, and hold such little faith in the ideal that man was born free, that even civil society has grown comfortable in arm’s-length condemnation of the poor. Sobering though this prospect may be, it must not detract from the small victories of the resistance, the need that it be revisited, for the protest raised on this occasion was what established the mere principle of compensation for the dispossessed. Tarlabașı provided a template to those who will have to fight the same fight in the near future. Silence is the friend of the developer, and the more attention Tarlabașı receives, the harder it becomes for TOKI and its partners to reproduce the injustices suffered by the residents, and in particular the tenants, of the district.

But what became of those who already left the area? Some, most notably the Kurds, have moved a little westward, to working-class districts in Zeytinburnu or Bahçelievler. There they join pre-existing Kurdish communities from which they hope to piggyback some social mobility against Turkey’s treadmill society, where most movement now takes the form of a conversion from millionaires to billionaires. Others have made their way to new estates, locations thirty miles outside Istanbul, places where new degrees of neglect were waiting; it is not that these people have been betrayed, for such would be to suggest someone cared about them to begin with. There are no schools, there are no jobs, there is no opportunity for growing small amounts of food to augment meagre wages, there is no local shopkeeper with a knowledge of his customers’ earnings that allows him extend a week’s worth of credit for provisions. The developers and authorities who have colluded in turning Tarlabașı on its head do not understand the principles of seven people living together in 55 square metre flats, electricity taken illegally from the grid and a long-standing verbal rental agreement to pay a landlord 150 YTL (about £50) a month. Once relocated outside of these norms and communities, with the fixed costs of housing, electric and other municipality services totalling comfortably 300 YTL a month, these people will begin to perish. Neither is it a case of their working harder; Turkey already has an official unemployment rate around twenty percent, which means, in a nation of 80 million people, the actual rate is likely much higher. Even before eviction, these residents were habitually scraping the bottom of the employment barrel; they would go out and sell bottled water, socks, paper tissues, they collected plastics and cardboard for recycling, waited on local tables or resorted ultimately to the sale of their sex. Stuck in a world economy that manufactures poverty and yet affords no place for the poor, the community of Tarlabașı finds itself facing the same fate as urban residents globally. With terrifying speed, the 21st becomes the century of the city, and billions of people, forced from their farming lands by free trade agreements and industrial agriculture, now make their way to cities that will not take them. As they are in turn expunged from the waiting urban spaces, humanity as it has historically been understood is laid sacrifice; the communities who have underpinned all culture and tradition are to become endangered, and in their stead, to the sound of the screeching winch of a crane, there rises a deus ex machina of property rights and the rational, consumer-citizen, a semi-human entity that relies on fiscal currency to survive just as its forbears relied on harvest.

For a number of days I return to Tarlabașı, watching the streets with their comings and goings of construction staff and curious bystanders. On leaving the area a final time, I speak to a man selling tulumba, a Turkish-style doughnut, from a trolley at the entrance to the building site. He tells me he lives further down the hill from the renewal zone, and gruffly he answers my stupid questions with an upwards wave of the hand, tips back his head in frustrated disdain,

“of course they’ll continue… this is only the beginning, everyone will be moved.”

All through those districts surrounding the first renewal zone, you feel the pressure of people on borrowed time. I watch as residents remonstrate beside a silver pickup truck, a foreman standing by in steel toecaps and a GAP hardhat. An elderly man throws up his arms in indignation, gestures angrily at piles of rubbish accumulating in streets away from the construction site. Since the other residents were removed, the fabric of society has disappeared, and what was always poor, is now becoming squalid, an ugly stopgap on the road to our future. Perched upon a gutter’s edge, beside a roof of cracked tiles, a black crow caws. Heel-toe, heel-toe… the bird takes a few sharp steps, before dropping from the ledge, and after falling minutely, its wings pick up, and the crow flies the scene.

Julian Sayarer is a journalist and author. In 2009 he set a world record circumnavigating the globe by bike. His first book, Life Cycles, was published in June 2014. He blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, and is on Twitter at @Julian_Sayarer.

Photos by Merlin Ozkan.

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