The district of Sulukule has been home to Istanbul’s Roma community since Byzantine times, but many of its residents were displaced to make way for a development project that started three years ago.
Sulukule was declared a target area for “urban transformation” by the Turkish cabinet in 2006. Six years, four lawsuits, and many evictions later, an Istanbul court has finally declared the project not to be in the public interest, reports Turkish independent media center Bianet. In the meantime, however, irreparable demolition and damage has occurred to the area and its residents.
“Social ostracization, gentrification and urban profiteering”
Turkey’s Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) began construction in Sulukule in May 2009.
Since then, large areas of the old neighborhood buildings have been demolished to make way for 640 villas. The new houses have all sold out at prices far beyond what a typical Roma family can afford. At most, 50 Roma families would be able to stay in the neighborhood.
TOKİ promised the displaced Roma families new housing in a neighborhood much farther from the city center. But some 300 of those families had difficulty making their payments to TOKİ on time, and have been forced out of those houses as well.
The whole project has been condemned by Turkish and international civil society groups and termed a “social ostracization, gentrification and urban profiteering” scheme by the World Heritage Committee. Now, thanks to the court’s verdict, a new plan will have to be devised: one that accommodates the Roma and doesn’t ruin the historical skyline.
Victory at last — but is it too late?
The court ruled to annul the project in response to three separate lawsuits, filed by the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, the Chamber of Urban Planners and the Roma Cultural Advancement and Solidarity Association.
The plaintiffs argued that the project targeted a protected area, hadn’t received proper clearance from the Regional Conservation Council, and violated the Roma community’s property rights.
An additional suit filed by the Roma Association and three Roma citizens in the European Court of Human Rights is currently pending, and could increase the damages won by the Roma community.
The annulment may have to be enforced, however. Construction was still ongoing in the area a few days after the Istanbul court announced its decision, according to a representative of the Sulukule civil platform against the development.
And the question remains: what will happen to the 640 villas that have already been erected on the site, or the residents whose houses were destroyed?
The plague of “urban transformation” in Turkey
In Istanbul, massive housing developments have been sprouting all over the horizon in the past decade. With the blessing of TOKİ, many other modest neighborhoods historically occupied by poorer ethnic minorities have been transformed into high-rise apartments for the upper-middle class. The excellent documentary Ekümenopolis explores this process in depth.
Other efforts by the state to “transform” Turkey’s urban landscape have been misguided at best.
Last month, for example, the government declared 4.1 million acres of land previously classified as forest to be open for development, a move that Turkey’s Union of Engineers and Architects decried as opening the land to “loot and plunder” on an unprecedented scale. The government is currently promoting a plan to cut off Istanbul’s main square, Taksim, from the rest of the city and replace its park with a mall.
Read more about urban development in Turkey:
4.1 Million Acres Of Land Previously Classified As Forest Goes On Sale In Turkey Today
Istanbul’s Main Square To Become Lifeless And Isolated In New Urban Plan, Opponents Warn
Bosphorus To Become Center Of Hydrogen Energy Production If Second Canal Is Built
Image via InuraIstanbul2009