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Istanbulites speak out on 'gentrification'

Istanbul is a city in grip of widespread 'gentrification' where slum areas, illegally built homes, non-earthquake-resistant neighborhoods and historical city cores are being cleared or rebuilt for high-income groups. Fikirtepe neighborhood on Istanbul's Asian side is one example of this rampant process which has characterized Turkey since the 1950s. An area at the center of a major three-year building project, this breakneck 'urban transformation' – as it is sometimes euphemistically known – still divides residents as to whether the process means integration or migration. Former Fikirtepe people say that gentrification does not only change the profile of the cities; it also changes the profile of the people and life in the area. Fikirtepe, formerly made up of skilled-working-class neighborhoods, is awaiting a variety of luxury high-rise towers, numbering 50,000 apartments. Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization says these huge towers are to be built in the next three years. Residents are often torn between staying or taking advantage of the opportunity to sell up.

More than 6,300 houses were demolished as part of the project. The ministry claims that only 3.2 percent of these were in good condition, defined as being "earthquake resistant."

"Everybody lost something here; maybe their home, maybe job, childhood or the best times of their life... Along with the district which was wiped off Istanbul, neighborliness and brotherhood that protect the elderly, needy and the poor also disappeared" says 45-year-old resident, Beysim A.

Beysim worries about the changing of character of the area brought about by this profound transformation.

"I think I am really lucky because I have 300 square meters near Dumlupinar neighborhood and will get six flats in exchange my land. It means I will gain a million dollars. But nothing will be same as it was before the gentrification," he says. 

When Beysim moved to another apartment as part of the transformation, his father passed away. Beysim complains: "Although I moved five kilometers away to another flat in Kadikoy, all of my former neighbors visited me.

However, the new ones did not even ask 'What's happening here; is there any problem?' Actually, I miss the old days."

Beysim also has concerns about the financial stability of the three-year plan. He says: "The project seems perfectly profitable, but no one can guarantee what will happen." He laughs and adds: "I hope the hunter won't become the hunted."

Metin E., a 55-year-old landlord, has been living in Fikirtepe for five decades. He claims the changes have "torn apart" his family after rising land prices triggered a dispute.

"Gentrification has affected every life in Fikirtepe… almost every person had a kinship with each other, one way or the other. My family was torn apart in the so-called 'three-year Fikirtepe project," Metin says.

Having renovated a five-storey rental building on 180 square meters over 10 years, Metin could see at least three 50-meter apartments built on his land. However, a family dispute among five siblings erupted after the value of the land changed.

"All my siblings know that my father left this land to me, but the rumors on the income of the gentrification on my land misled them. This land belongs to me not to them," Metin says.

Many people, unsure and ambivalent about this process of rapid change, have founded associations to counsel and support residents uncertain about the future.

Ercument Oruc, head of the Fikirtepe Social Solidarity Association, said they founded the group to protect inexperienced landowners from being deceived by what he calls "the double-dealers" – a pointed reference to real-estate firms.

"Some real estate companies offer false hopes to the people in the transformed areas. And the people in those areas call them 'double-dealers' who fool people by offering so-called 'more flats' in return for their small land," Oruc says.

Oruc said: "However, after they have the landowner's signature, they just vanish. They fool people into buying their house for a song and then selling more expensively to the large real-estate companies."

Hakan Catalkaya, president of the Istanbul Urban Transformation Association, says a disadvantage of gentrification in Turkey is that many of the transformations are planned without researching the cultural, social and the financial characteristic of the community living there.

"If you want a good transformation project, the land to be urbanized should be researched; people should be asked for their ideas," he says.

Although the Gezi park protests in June 2013 aroused intense interest in the gentrification of Istanbul, the most populous city in Turkey is still undergoing tremendous transformation.

The ruling Justice and Development Party aims to oversee $400 billion worth of urban transformation in Turkey until 2023. According to the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, over 1.4 million people were exposed to gentrification in Turkey in 2013.

Burhanettin Kaya, an associate professor with the Psychiatric Association of Turkey, said the term 'gentrification' symbolizes "cultural alienation" in Turkey.

"These luxury high-rise apartments will be demanded mostly by the rich people. However, the former people living in the urbanized sites are generally middle-class people. They might alienate themselves from the high-class community by trying to fit in more with the surrounding suburb culture they're already a part of," Kaya says.

A 60-year-old widow, Nejla E., is one of those feeling this alienation. She had been living in a large detached house in Kartal, another Asian district of Istanbul, before transformation swept through the area.

"I used to live in a house with big garden and now I am forced to live in a dark, narrow high-rise apartment," says Nejla who refused to move to her new flat.

Living with her son and daughter-in-law in Uskudar instead, Nejla waits to buy a new house with a big garden in which to live again with her cats and grow flowers. In the rush to modernize Istanbul’s sprawling neighborhoods, it appears that some people are being left behind.

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