Some of Istanbul's old neighborhoods are struggling to modernize. The Turkish government is razing buildings to make way for new homes. But in the process, some argue, the original character of the neighborhoods is being destroyed, along with the fabric of the communities that live there. Aaron Schachter reports from Istanbul.
MARCO WERMAN: The newly well to do are moving into upgraded neighborhoods in Istanbul and that's all well and good except for the fact that others are being moved out of the ancient Turkish city. The process makes for more modern neighborhoods but something is lost, too. Historical character and a sense of community. The World's Aaron Schachter reports.
AARON SCHACTER: The Roma people, also known as Gypsies, have lived for hundreds of years in Istanbul's historic Sulukule neighborhood. It's a slum about a half hour's bus ride from the heart of European Istanbul. The government has demolished most of the buildings to make way for new homes. Its urban transformation project calls for six hundred twenty apartments, a hotel and a trade, culture and entertainment center. But some are determined to save what remains here. This is one of the regular protests that take place here. A group marches past an array of two story cinder block houses with sagging walls and roofs. Kids and chickens hop around the rubble of bulldozed homes. Ismael Ileri came to show support for the remaining Sulukule residents. Ileri says the government isn't compensating people fairly for their properties. This neighborhood definitely needs to be renovated he says but these people should be given decent housing that preserves the fabric of their community. The problem here, like in many places, is the vast majority are renters. They get nothing from the homes being sold and they're forced to move farther away from the city center. Housing activist, Neshe Ozan says the government failed this community.
NESHE OZAN: Of course this could have been done better. Look at the Fanar neighborhood. There the government worked with the United Nations and residents. Nobody forced anybody to do anything. The neighborhood was rehabilitated, not gentrified. It was all done organically.
SCHACHTER: The cobblestone streets of Fanar are lined with historic wooden houses, churches and synagogues. There are row houses with colorful bay windows and distinctive wooden doors. Fanar was once home to wealthy Greek merchants. Over the past few decades, it's become home to working class Turks from the hinterlands. Unlike Sulukule, Fanar didn't face the wrecking ball, in part because the United Nations has cited it for its cultural and architectural significance. Beyhan Gursoy gives a tour of the house she lovingly rehabbed over five years. She spent months tracking down original tiles and the right front door. There's now an art gallery on the first floor, classrooms on the second. A kiln takes up a good part of the basement.
BEYHAN GURSOY: This area will boom in five years. I don't know whether the people living here now will sell their houses or not, but I would love for them to sell so new people could move in who appreciate this architecture and cultural history. People like me, artists, writers, journalists, intellectuals.
SCHACHTER: Gursoy says she often gets in fights with neighbors who've lived here for years. She says they are destroying the original character of the homes with gaudy front doors or outrageous colors. She calls them ignorant. Some of Gursoy's neighbors aren't especially fond of her either. They see her as an outsider and a harbinger of their future. Celal Delik says this so-called organic gentrification is better than what's happening in Sulukule but it still means people like him will eventually be pushed out. Delik says it bothers me that we lived here when the neighborhood was decrepit and now these new people will come and enjoy the place. I hope I won't have to sell. Our house has been in the family for sixty or seventy years. If someone should be here, it's us. Officials maintain their goal is to make Istanbul a more modern city and that can mean moving people out. In a city growing so rapidly, space is one of the most precious of commodities and for the moment, it's going to the highest bidder, often regardless of cultural concerns. For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter, Istanbul.
WERMAN: Photos of the Istanbul neighborhoods in Aaron's report are on our website, that's TheWorld.org.