Repression and resistance in Istanbul: Tarlabaşı and Me

"Tarlabaşı is a place to hide."  Soon, there won't be any place to hide… 

Harriet Fildes
19 February 2015

Erdoğan’s now infamous Aksaray (white or clean) palace, costing an astonishing $350 million, has defied court orders, symbolically and physically inserting the AKPs ‘new’ Turkey of Ottoman-style commodity fetishism into a public space, controversially in this case, the Ataturk Forest Farm.

Gentrification has taken on an almost unique significance in Turkey. The AKP is not only attempting (largely successfully) to inscribe its myopic neo-liberal vision on society in the form of re-development or urban renewal. It is architecturally imposing a top-down restructuring of the social sphere, attempting to cleanse from Istanbul and other sites of power those whose socio-economic profile defies the hegemonic culture as designed by the state.

The hybrid of Islamic and capitalist values melded by the AKP makes for a particularly aggressive version of gentrification which not only aims at the homogenization of culture but also, at the stratification of class through the enclosure of public space and the dystopian proliferation of gated-communities. Riding upon the back of its economic success, the detrimental effects of the AKP’s redevelopment vision have only recently become the subject of widespread popular contestation as a result of Gezi Park and the attention this brought.

Areas such as Tarlabaşı, Çinçin and Sulukule share one thing in common; they are home to dissidents, Kurds, Alevis, Roma, Armenians and all those who seek to evade the panoptical surveillance state. The AKP has been leading a predominantly one-sided war of attrition against these communities since its accession to power in 2002, using an array of techniques from police violence and forced housing relocation to stifling the informal economy on which many people in Tarlabaşı rely to survive.

As with Erdoğan’s prescient statement regarding the construction of the world’s largest airport; “We’re building not just an airport, but actually a monument to victory”, the AKP’s attempts to spatially entrench their vision of modernity upon society through urban renewal have largely been welcomed as a “success”. Both architecturally and ideologically, the AKP is remaking Turkey in its own image, which in large part means a re-developed vision of commercialization, modernization and Islamization, not just of urban space but of the very character of the Turkish public sphere.

The result? Areas of historical and cultural significance for Turkey’s “marginals” are vanishing fast, and with little attention from those outside the affected communities.

There are of course winners and losers. There is a bubbling tension between those who benefit from an open economy, promoting investment, development and profit for some through the systematic enclosure of public space, and those who not only benefit from but rely upon an open culture, allowing for the maintenance of historic spaces of multiculturalism and diversity for all.

In Istanbul, this tension is palpable. Closing in on the streets of discontent, vast hotels and luxury apartment buildings push through like weeds, not only redefining Istanbul’s famous skyline but also razing some of country’s more infamous areas; namely Tarlabaşı.

But what does this mean for those who are left behind? Widespread movements against gentrification have been started up by revolutionary socialist groups and migrant committees since the 1980s. The Mayday Neighbourhood, for example, arose to combat the non-consensual re-development of gecekondu (shanty-town) districts in Istanbul. Since Gezi, political squatting and peaceful demonstrations have proliferated. There are also less desirable developments such as the violent resistance tactics used by the DHKP/C to reclaim public space.

However, an element of this change is often left out; what it is like to live on the ground, to have your way of life subjected to top-down social change. The voice of the subaltern is largely neglected, even by the left.

Tarlabaşı, a historic neighbourhood of multiculturalism and dissident politics has been one of the main targets of the AKPs homogenizing agenda. It can be viewed as a microcosm of the battle taking place across Turkey, and Tarlabaşı ve Ben (Tarlabaşı and Me), one of the current entries in the Love and Change competition of the !F Istanbul film festival, is documenting this battle in a way that the film-makers hope will make a difference.

Tarlabaşı ve Ben examines the everyday lived experience of those facing, or evading, the omniscient and omnipresent state apparatus - people like Mustafa, a refuse collector under imminent threat as the government scrambles to dismantle the city’s informal economy.

The storage of waste underground is a key strategy by which the government hopes to gain control of these dissident areas. Without the ability to sell the abundant waste materials gathered from around Istiklal Caddesi, the main street leading towards Taksim square,Tarlabaşı residents will be forced out of the city, further entrenching economic ghettoization in yet another step towards escalating inequality, segregation and commodification of public culture and space. The documentary tracks how these individuals and collectives struggle to maintain their way of life, but in doing so, create transforming networks of solidarity and community action, joining a growing movement.  

Mustafa, from Tarlabaşı and Me.

Mustafa from Tarlabaşı and Me.

Harriet Fildes (HF): Tell us about Mustafa, how you came to meet him and how he came to call Tarlabaşı home?

Marianna Francese & Jaad Gaillet (T.&Me):  We met Mustafa in 2012, while we were doing a photo documentary project on the inhabitants of Tarlabaşı. We were looking for a shoemaker and he helped us find him. They happened to spend a lot of time together and he told us a part of his incredible story en route. We decided to come back and listen to the rest of his story and tell it through the film Tarlabaşı ve Ben.

In the ten years since he was released from prison, Mustafa has wandered around, doing all kind of informal jobs in several areas of Istanbul. He landed in Tarlabaşı four years ago and decided to become a kağıt toplayici (refuse collector). He sought to begin a new life in this area, where, thanks to the solidarity of families of many different ethnic communities, he had found himself a home again. Unfortunately the government has very different ideas about the lives of these independent workers. We see more and more of them made homeless in Tarlabaşı and elsewhere, while more and more children are venturing into the government underground storage facilities to scavenge what they can.

HF: Last time I was there, Istanbul was rife with a propaganda campaign promoting this redevelopment project. So what’s happening in Tarlabaşı now?

T.&Me: The situation is deteriorating. Not only is the urban renovation project "Tarlabaşı Yenileniyor" (Tarlabaşı is renewed) spreading rapidly; much of the area now stands empty and dilapidated. A lot of families have abandoned their homes to eviction orders, but a few people still hold out against those orders. Many don't have any choice. Kurdish people, for instance, left everything they had in the East of Turkey and rebuilt a new home here. These families cannot afford to live anywhere else. The few Armenians in the area have lived in Tarlabaşı for generations and together with the Kurds, are life-long Tarlabaşı residents who are plunged into despair at the thought of having to leave their homes and seeing their neighbourhood and lives destroyed. For this reason they keep on going and continuing their life while new hotels are built around them. They are awaiting the day when they will have to leave.

There is some good news. A new order from the Council of State in July 2014 cancelled the expropriation of 164 buildings in the neighbourhood. Ahmet Gün, the president of the association of social support and development of the owners and tenants of Tarlabaşı, (Tarlabaşı mülk sapihleri ve kiracıları kalkındırma ve sosyal yardımlaşma derneği), is positive about the impact of this order. So let's be positive too! 

HF What is the involvement and objectives of the community? : Is there a movement against this emerging, as we’ve seen in places like Okmeydani?

T&Me: As Mustafa says in the film, “I don't understand why people don't fight in Tarlabaşı. What could they do if a family made a stand on the top of a building? They couldn't continue the demolition”. This is partly true, but the residents of the area are passive people, they don't have the means to fight and there is a growing fear, not just in Tarlabaşı but across Turkey. We think that the situation in the Okmeydani is quite different as there is the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, the DHKP/C, who fights for the neighbourhood. But the main issue concerning Tarlabaşı residents is the huge investment in the area, as Tarlabaşı is situated in the very centre of Istanbul, a few minutes from Taksim and Gezi Park, in the heart of the cultural and commercial area of Pera.

The Gezi protests brought some external attention to this issue but the local people who in some sense were the most affected were not very involved. Residents went to collect the valuable gas canisters and sell them on. But they didn’t feel they had the luxury to go and protest. There is a paradox here between these two worlds.

HF: Gentrification is an enduring problem in most countries of the world,  but is it different in Turkey?          

T.&Me: The experience in western countries has shown that the experiment to house poor people in tower blocks on the outskirts of cities has failed. Increasingly governments and municipalities are forcing poor people out of the city centre and to the very outskirts, where they have little to no access to the low-skilled jobs that are often their only hope, and that are indispensable in any city. This affects Tarlabaşı and many other areas in Istanbul. But this is not new and as you said, gentrification is a problem that many countries face.

What is new in Turkey is that the AKP is trying to do it all at once, whereas in western countries this process has taken decades. People started to protest in Gezi Park for multiple and different reasons, but what they all shared was the discontent with the government for its neoliberal policies, policies that nevertheless received much success in the recent elections.

The mayor of Beyoglu, Ahmet Misbah Demircan has repeatedly vowed to turn Tarlabaşı Boulevard into “the Champs Elysées of Istanbul” – gutting the Boulevard, and then naming the street for which over 360 historically listed buildings had to be razed, after the mythological Elysian Fields. This certainly raises the question of what exactly is to be “renovated” and whose history to be “preserved”? They get rid of Tarlabaşı, they get rid of Sulukule, and call this ‘preservation’.   

HF: Do you believe that communicating Mustafa’s message, and the message of those like him, can have a democratizing effect on processes of urban change?

T.&Me: We believe in the power of images and words and that in communicating Mustafa's message, people will reconsider. We decided we had to film Tarlabaşı and Mustafa during the summer in 2013, during the protests of Gezi Park, as we knew that Tarlabaşı was being destroyed day by day and that soon there would soon be nothing left. So we left Paris with a few thousands euros that we obtained for the project from the Mairie de Paris and went to Istanbul to shoot this feature-length documentary; Tarlabaşı ve Ben. The opportunity is to show a historical area of Istanbul which is heading for extinction, raise consciousness in a country where freedom of expression is limited and give a voice to people who don't have one.

A version of this piece was originally published in Your Middle East. Details of !f Istanbul film festival and Tarlabaşı ve Ben screening times can be found here; Love and Change


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