No Room for Roma

by Hacer Foggo

Above (Issue I/2019)

There is nothing left in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Sulukule that reminds anyone of Sükrü’s Café. But up until it was torn down, there was a photo hanging there of a man with a twirled moustache and prayer beads in his hand, the grandfather of the cafes owner, Sükrü Pündük. The establishment had belonged to his family for three generations. As the head of the Roma association in Sulukule, Sükrü Pündük fought to prevent the demolition and gentrification of this area. But today you see only luxury apartments here, the owners a very different group of residents from those who came before them.

Sulukule is the oldest Roma neighbourhood in Turkey and was the first to fall victim to the enthusiastic modernisation policies implemented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now the country’s president but was previously its prime minister. Since then there are reports about the city’s “urban transformation” almost daily in the Turkish media. That transformation has been in progress since 2005 when TOKI, the state-backed housing agency, was restructured and new relevant laws were passed. The aim was to turn Turkish cities into mega-globalised metropolises, prestige projects were to be realised and gentrification prioritised. Today inner city areas are being torn down completely and the residents, who are often also the owners of homes here, are being forced out to the outskirts of the city.

Those who feel the impact of these movements most are the poor people: This means the Roma people, other migrants and refugees. According to real estate consultancy and management firm, JLL, there are 412 shopping centres taking up over 12.6 million square meters of space in Turkey. In Istanbul alone there are 119 of these malls and another 16 are under construction.

The Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers has noted where the shopping malls are often being built: On areas of land that are supposed to be emergency gathering points for locals if there is an earthquake, something that Istanbul is particularly prone to. Three-quarters of the 493 gathering points have been built over now, and not just with shopping malls but also apartment houses and other kinds of residences.

The area of Sulukule dates back to the Byzantium era, when it lay inside the Theodosian Walls erected to protect the ancient city of Constantinople (now modern-day Istanbul). In old Ottoman documents, Sulukule is mentioned as a place where fortunes were told, coffee grounds read and dancing bears seen, a place of music and dance. For young Roma women, dancing was one of the most important ways to make a living. In the pleasure houses run by local Roma, the guests could pay a fixed price to be served a small glass of raki (aniseed liquor) with snacks and fruit, while they watched the performances. There was nowhere else like them, these family-run establishments where locals gave the best renditions of popular Roma songs, that were internationally renowned and which are still well known today.

The neighbourhood’s golden years came in the 1950s and ‘60s. Tourists visiting Istanbul always had Sulukule on their to-do list. Parts of the 1963 James Bond film, To Russia With Love, were filmed here. Many of the Roma families in this neighbourhood can present entries on the property registry that go back to the Ottoman era, demonstrating just how long their settlements and unique culture have been present here.

In fact, until 1990, the various cafes and venues were the most important form of income for the district. But that was the year that Sadettin Tantan became the chief of police in Istanbul and started to conduct raids on these businesses. Tantan would capture the street children and transsexuals and have them lashed with thick hoses. Facing this kind of repression, the pleasure houses began to close. The rot set in. Poverty and unemployment were rife, the music was silenced. The once-busy cafes and bars were rented out by families desperate for an income, or they were used to house animals. The musicians who once played there now earned their money – and less of it – on the street instead.

In 2006, the Turkish government decided that the whole quarter should immediately be taken over by the state – that is, they decided to confiscate the property from the resident owners – with the proceeds of any sales going into the owners’ bank accounts. But for many of the property owners this sounded more like a threat because hardly any of them had bank accounts, nor any way to open one. This impossible situation forced the owners to try and sell their real estate as quickly as possible, in case they ended up with nothing at all. This decision drew speculators. The latter bought the properties at very low prices from the desperate Roma families and sold them on again, for far higher prices.

The Roma association in Sulukule was founded to stop this rapid transfer of property and the association, together with activists, architects and students, took the case to the European courts in 2006. But the court of cassation that was responsible for the matter rejected a preliminary injunction, clearing the way for the ongoing expropriation of all the properties of the families here.

There were dozens of press conferences organised and national and international campaigns started, in order to prevent this. Additionally students and lecturers at two Istanbul universities founded STOP – short for Sinir Tanimayan Otonom Plancilar, or Autonomous [Town] Planners Without Borders. Together with local Roma, the group came up with an alternative plan for the economic development and future use of Sulukule and presented it publicly in 2008. But the local authorities turned it down.

So between 2007 and 2010, more than 300 houses were demolished in Sulukule with only a handful saved because they were designated historical and worth preserving. Worldwide protests and even warnings from UNESCO couldn’t prevent this. And around 5,000 people were displaced, 3,500 among them Roma.

This part of the city has been destroyed. But the Roma association of Sulukule and other Sulukule groups have not given up: they are fighting in another way now.

The Istanbul authorities did eventually declare the construction illegal, albeit retrospectively. But by then the former residents had other problems. Many had already lost their new apartments because they couldn’t afford to pay the rent. Some of them left the area, others were now homeless. Most of them now make ends meet by working as street sellers while the new residents of Sulukule live high above them, in their luxury apartments. 

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