Putting profits over people fueling discontent in Turkey

Many Turks are furious about what they say is the government’s failure to address social issues and listen to people’s needs, while setting aside billions to build shopping centers, satellite cities, airports and other big projects

By Constanze Letsch  /  The Guardian, ISTANBUL, Turkey

Tue, Jun 11, 2013 - Page 9

Almost a decade ago, Emine Demir, 30, and her family chose to settle in Istanbul’s run-down, but central, Tarlabasi District, selling water and tissues on Taksim Square to buy a small apartment. It was a decision she has come to regret bitterly.

Her building, along with 278 others, has been placed under demolition orders. When it is gone, the plan is to erect a new gated community for Istanbul’s wealthy citizens, complete with offices, hotels and shopping centers. The poor will be gone, and the rich will move in.

“They promised us that nobody would be victimized, but they victimized all of us,” she said. “They threw all of us out into the street. What are laws in Turkey worth if they allow this?”

Tarlabasi is just one of the many redevelopment projects under way in Istanbul. About 50 neighborhoods are earmarked for demolition and renewal, and 7.5 billion Turkish lira (US$3.96 billion) were set aside for Istanbul’s public development projects last year alone, according to the Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas.

Projects like these, as well as other gargantuan development schemes, have fueled the anger of hundreds of thousands of Turks against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the past week and a half, confronting him with his biggest challenge in a decade.

The rebellion on the streets of dozens of Turkey’s cities is being staged by protesters who feel that the prime minister is not listening to them. In projects worth tens of billions, the Turkish government wants to give Istanbul a new airport, the world’s biggest, and Erdogan wants to cut a new canal on the European side of Istanbul linking the Black and Marmara seas. He also recently broke ground for the construction of a new bridge spanning the Bosphorus Strait and wants to build a new mosque, bigger than the ancient ones that decorate Europe’s fastest-growing city.

“Erdogan speaks about his Istanbul projects, but should he not tackle all of our problems first before talking about a new airport, a new bridge, a canal, two entire new satellite cities?” Demir asked. “First listen to the people, to what they have to say. Speak about personal freedoms, unemployment and poverty first, and then about giant construction projects.”

The building boom is part of Erdogan’s political and economic strategy. There are plans for two entire new cities, each of 1 million people, on either side of the Bosphorus. However, it was the planned demolition of a city center park to make way for another shopping mall in the shape of a kitschy replica of Ottoman-era military barracks that was the trigger for the protests that have escalated nationally and are now targeted at the prime minister.

“Linking the whole economy to the construction sector is very problematic,” urban activist and academic Yasar Adanali said. “It turns a city into something that is supposed to generate profit without taking into account the needs of the city and the people.”

However, not everyone is unhappy. Two years ago, Nedim Demirel, 50, having been displaced from Tarlabasi, decided to move into an apartment offered to him by the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKI), a government body that provides low-cost apartments for sale, but no rented housing. He will have to pay 500 lira a month for the next 15 years, plus bills.

“After 15 years, I will be a house owner,” he said. “And it’s nice in Kayasehir, quiet and clean.”

The immaculate yellow, beige and orange high-rises of Kayasehir, a satellite city development one-and-a-half hours from Taksim Square, look like cardboard models against the horizon.

It is the biggest satellite development in Turkey, with 65,000 apartments currently under construction. Once the project is completed, the population of Kayasehir is expected to total 400,000. Schools, clinics, mosques, supermarkets, police stations and recreational areas cater to residents’ needs. In the center of the development, a currently semi-empty shopping center will host 172 shops and restaurants, offices, a hotel and a multiplex cinema.

Yet for many, taking on the mortgage required to buy a house in a TOKI development is a risk that can easily end in homelessness — especially if one holds an insecure job and has no regular monthly income, as is the case for many former Tarlabasi residents.

In a chain restaurant next to the local Imam Hatip secondary school, a group of teenage boys crowd around a table, smoking and drinking tea.

“This is the only place to hang out here,” Yavuz Selim, 17, said. “And everything is very expensive. As students we cannot afford it.”

His friends agree.

“We are quite bored here. There is nothing to do for us,” they said.

Some of the boys attend soccer practice at a club an hour away.

“We have asked the management for more sports facilities,” said Firat Suru, 18. “They are now building one football field. One. How would that be enough for so many people?”

While the municipality has increased local transport over the past year, the last buses leave at 10pm and many of the families who live in Kayasehir cannot afford cars.

“We feel isolated from the city center here,” Yusuf Sari, 16, said. “A bit cut off, really.”

Analysts say this kind of segregation changes the idea of a city — a space where different parts of society coexist — and will create long-term social and economic problems.

“It is very likely that these will end up like the banlieues in France,” Adanali said. “Spatial isolation and the social concentration of certain segments of society will create discontent. This discontent, too, is isolated from the rest of society. People start to feel that they cannot escape this isolation, which makes matters worse.”

While most of the boys in Kayasehir do not agree with the protests in Taksim, they say they respect other people’s opinions.

“And we feel concerned by what is going on because the protesters are mostly our own age,” Selim said.

Ali Cuhacioglu, 54, a carpenter who was evicted from his Tarlabasi workshop two months ago, is fed up with the lack of communication between the city’s authorities and the public.

“They don’t respect us, they don’t care about us,” he said.

“They pass laws and decrees as they like. We’re expected to shut up and accept them,” he added.

Ali said that he would join the Taksim Square protests if he had the time.

“The government now needs to see that we have had enough. It is harder and harder to survive for us. Istanbul is no place for poor people any more,” he said.