The SETimes Podcast – May 31st, 2012
The changing face of old and often poor Istanbul city districts frustrates many, but gives hope to others. Cigdem Bugdayci reports for Southeast European Times in Istanbul.
The Ahirkapi district of Istanbul is just one of the many Istanbul districts undergoing an increasing urban development with new constructions and renovations underway, in turn bringing change to the local population.
Shop owner Husnu Yildiz was born and reared in the neighbourhood, running his father’s shop that is now some 115 years old.
“Hotels disrupt the lives of the locals. The hotel customers come to our neighbourhood with package holidays, they come in flocking like sheep, of no use to us.”
As a new, more affluent class is moving in and taking over the neighbourhoods that traditionally homed socially less fortunate, mostly the impoverished Roma, many locals and activists took up the task of drawing attention to the increasing presence of the urban middle class that is moving into many old districts of Istanbul and with its arrival driving out the poor inhabitants to the city outskirts.
Sahap Firat, another local who moved out of the neighbourhood over 30 years ago, has come to visit his childhood house. He talks about the transformation of Ahirkapi.
“It should be carried out because no one really wants to take care of these buildings here. I also wish them to stay as they are, but the house I was born in is in patches, bad condition.”
He points to the newly-restored buildings, now serving as hotels.
“These houses were about to collapse. They are restored. Now, which is better?”
As historic houses remained untouched, not renovated for years, the poor moved in and built their livelihood in and around the dilapidated buildings. Now, with the rising interest in Istanbul’s historic buildings, mainly for tourist purposes, most such neighbourhoods are undergoing a rapid and dramatic transformation, with dilapidated houses being turned to five star hotels.
Firat also says:
“There is demand and a need to build hotels. There isn’t much suitable place left for this.”
The new hotels mean a drastic change in the local population, for the most part a decrease in the Roma community, like in Ahirkapi, which is now about 700 to 800 people, living in some 300 district buildings.
Yasar Ucar is a violin player of the Roma community:
“Many have already started to sell their houses to people we don’t know. The folks here are poor, mostly Roma people. It was a residential area up until now. But now, people are coming and buying these houses for a cheap price.”
Ucar further explains apprehensions of others in having the city as they know changed forever.
“It won’t take long. At the most five or seven years, [after which] there won’t be a residential area here, hotels and pensions [type of guest houses] will be everywhere. Of course, I’m alarmed by this. Our past is here, our children are born here. We are used to this neighbourhood.”
Others, however, are more optimistic about the changes. Emin is retired but still works in one of the local hotels.
“It is good to have a hotel in a place like this. It will make the neighbourhood more modern, there will be more job opportunities.”
Many oppose the new urban transformation of Ahirkapi and of other Istanbul districts. The Kumbara Art organisation has helped organise this year’s event with the help of the local Roma organisations.
One member, Ahmet Durmadi explains how a local festival is a means to voice their support for the Roma community against the on-going urban development.
“We are a bit disturbed that it has turned into a street festival. Next year, we are going to contact the Romanian and Macedonian Embassies to learn how it is celebrated in those countries. We want to organize some conferences by inviting academics, people, and musicians from the Roma community.”
One of the people that support the Roma in the district is Pınar Tetik, an archaeologist.
“What you see here is a living culture. We come across different cultures and ways of life, sometimes tight knit in closed environments. Roma people are like that. That’s why these people are the example of a living culture for me.”