Istanbul, Turkey, Kentsel dönüşüm, May, 2014. Wikicommons/ Nevit Dilman. Some rights reserved.The rapid gentrification of urban landscapes under neoliberalism is a controversial issue across the globe. Scholars have described the transformation of cities in favor of middle- and upper-class use in contexts as diverse as New York, Mumbai and Johannesburg.
Many of these studies point to the ways in which gentrification pushes lower-income populations out of their neighborhoods, whether through rising rents, forceful eviction or – in some parts of the world – even dispossession. Others, however, have argued that some forms of gentrification turn into a win-win situation in which the original residents actually benefit from the influx of better-off residents. In this context, Georgetown University Professor Peter Byrne has, among others, argued that despite the undeniably harmful effects of gentrification for some households, “increases in the number of affluent and well-educated residents is plainly good for cities, on balance, by increasing the number of residents who can pay taxes, purchase local goods and services, and support the city in state and federal political processes.”
The idea of gentrification as a redistributive policy response is increasingly shared and promoted in policy circles, pointing out the relation between gentrification and a healthy (class and ethnic) social mixing in cities.
However, so far there seems to be little evidence that gentrification necessarily leads to socio-economic diversity; and even if the fruits of mixture were to be true, it is not clear how and at what point in the “mix” established inhabitants would benefit from this. Although still relatively understudied, at the heart of the quarrel surrounding the question whether gentrification leads to diversity or not lies the issue of what happens to local schools.
It has generally been posited that there is a close connection between the quality of schools and neighborhood development. British human geographer Gary Bridge has called this the “gentrification/education cycle.” The vast majority of studies of this cycle – as with most research on gentrification – stems from the Anglo-Saxon world. These studies have shown that families that move into gentrifying working-class districts, while making use of the local consumption infrastructure, tend to register their children for public schools outside their neighborhood of residence. This selective use, in turn, leads to continued segregation between newcomers and long-time residents – despite physical proximity.
Others have argued that young urban pioneers moving into so-called “up-and-coming neighborhoods” leave again for middle-class quarters as soon as their children reach school age. Moreover, it has been suggested that due to different factors some local schools in gentrifying neighborhoods are preferred over others – making it difficult for working-class families to get their children into these schools given the increased influx of middle-class families who are often more successful in dealing with school bureaucracies.
These findings seem to suggest that gentrification is not only about renting or buying property in certain areas of the city. Instead, as Professor Bridge has maintained, it entails a “cycle of class reproduction from the purchase of the first gentrified property, through a sustained gentrification trajectory (perhaps involving several neighborhoods), incorporating childrearing and the education careers of children ⦏...⦐.” Furthermore it seems that any encounters that exist between newcomers and long-term inhabitants end at the school gate.
Istanbul’s urban transformation
Whichever is true, the relationship between the process of gentrification and the educational realm is still largely unknown throughout most parts of the world. We want to draw attention to this debate by briefly taking into consideration a case from Istanbul.
Istanbul is currently the site of an exemplary urban transformation process. While some neighborhoods are undergoing the more classical gentrification process with galleries and cafes opening up on every corner, others are subjected to total destruction and reconstruction, often resulting in the building of gated communities and mass housing complexes in the midst of low-income, informal settings (for example, the so-called gecekondu, which are informal squatter settlements literally built overnight and located in different areas around cities all over Turkey). An example of the latter is the Gaziosmanpaşa in Istanbul. Gaziosmanpaşa used to be dominated by informal settlements but today is a mixed-use neighborhood with middle-class tenants and property owners and low-income residents living in close proximity. This class transformation has been led by the public mass housing administration (Toplu Konut İdaresi, abbreviated as TOKİ), which has taken on large housing projects in the area. Although TOKİ initially emerged to provide affordable housing for low-income citizens, today only a very small share of the housing complexes it builds targets this group. The majority of TOKİ housing is constructed for middle and upper-class use and in partnership with the private sector. It is thus fair to argue that TOKİ has turned into a profit-making machine for the state.
Gated community entry cards
With the rapid gentrification process, various institutions such as shopping malls, private hospitals and schools have mushroomed in Gaziosmanpaşa for meeting the consumption needs of the new middle class, culminating in the large gated communities located along the Transit European Motorway (TEM). Presently, there are almost 20 ongoing luxury housing projects in Gaziosmanpaşa. While many middle class parents seem to prefer enrolling their children in private schools that have currently emerged in the area, the effects of gentrification on public schools is noteworthy. The sharp contrast between the two public primary schools, one located nearby the gated community and the other in the gated community called ‘TEM Avrupa Konutları’, are particularly striking.
23 Nisan İlkokulu (23 NİSAN) was founded in 1984 and moved to its present building in 2009. TOKİ Avrupa Konutları İlkokulu (TAKİ) was founded in 2009 as part of the gated community and thus carries its name. While the two schools are public, it has been reported that TAKİ only accepts students from the gated community; the parents are asked to provide their house deed, a tenancy agreement or a copy of the gated community entrance card during school enrollment. Discrimination against students from outside the gated community is said to cause resentment and indignation both among the students and their parents in the area.
Inspired by these newspaper reports, we have checked discrepancies between these public schools through the official webpage of the Ministry of Education[i]. It seems that the inequalities between the schools are indeed dramatic; while the numbers of students are more or less the same, 23 NİSAN has 20 teachers, 26 classrooms, whereas TAKİ has 46 teachers and 34 classrooms. Most importantly, while the two schools are extremely close to each other geographically, 23 NİSAN is a double shift school, while TAKİ, for some unknown reason, is not.
This basically means less to no extra curricular activities, tired and unproductive teachers and poorer education for students in 23 NİSAN. These discrepancies become even clearer when we consider the dramatic imbalances in the schools’ achievements: While TAKİ has won various district level championship titles in sporting activities, ranks high on central placement tests such as SBS (national high school entry exam) and has been awarded the so-called “white flag” for being the district’s cleanest school, its competitor 23 NİSAN does not boast these achievements. There is no doubt that the accumulation of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in 23 NİSAN has detrimental effects on the students’ social and cultural capital and, thus, their future.
To conclude, gentrification is usually studied in terms of its effects on displacement and redistribution of capital. However, the importance of schools, which are central to the legitimated reproduction of inequalities in society, seems to go rather unnoticed in gentrification studies. This issue can be studied at macro and micro levels: How does gentrification affect financing and school infrastructure? How does it shape student and teacher profiles and the relations between them? Does gentrification result in conflicting relations between teachers/school staff and demanding middle-class parents? In which forms does discrimination occur in daily school life? Are there any positive effects of gentrification on schools? What policies should be developed and implemented to ameliorate the negative effects of gentrification on schools? The list of questions is long, and therefore, we urge researchers in Turkey to look more closely at this understudied field.
For ‘TAKİ’ see http://tokiavrupakonutlariilkokulu.meb.k12.tr/meb_iys_dosyalar/34/11/741747/okulumuz_hakkinda.html?CHK=9820dff0ee5967b353359349a0e9fa60