In Istanbul, a Major Gentrification Project is Hyped via its Own Museum Exhibition

Residential development projects in Istanbul are often hyped via sleek, well-designed advertising and clever social media campaigns, and one sweeping gentrification initiative in central Istanbul has even been granted its own museum exhibition.

Funded by the Polat Holding company, an exhibition linked to an ambitious project that the firm is overseeing is on display at the Rahmi M. Koç museum until March 30.

The “Piyalepasa: From Past to Present” exhibition showcases half a millennium of history of the neighborhood of the same name, featuring archival maps and paintings of the area throughout the centuries. It is a thinly-veiled effort to buttress the ongoing Piyalepaşa İstanbul residential development project currently under way.

“When Istanbul experienced a new and strong wave of migration beginning in the 1950’s, the Piyalepaşa area became engulfed by slum housing. In spite of the negative development conditions, Piyalepaşa was still full of trees and flower gardens. Today these flower gardens are gone but behind the [Piyalepaşa] mosque there is still a large market garden,” said one speaker on a panel at the exhibition.

But an important fact left out was that the market garden in question, built in the 16th century alongside the historic mosque designed by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, was nearly destroyed and turned into a parking garage. The historic garden was saved in the nick of time after the 2nd İstanbul Cultural Heritage Protection Board designated it a protected area last year.

The garden is located directly across the highway from the construction zone of the Piyalepaşa İstanbul project, which led to speculation that the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s (İBB) parking garage plan had something to do with the gentrification project.

The name of the project — which is moving full speed ahead with $800 million in investments for a residential and office complex featuring homes that are being sold with a starting price of $300,000 for a one-bedroom apartment — is also misleading, as the hundreds of mostly informally-built homes demolished to clear way for the luxury apartment blocks are not actually in the quarter of Piyalepaşa but in the İstiklal neighborhood, better known as Hacıhüsrev.

Hacıhüsrev is one of İstanbul’s historic Roma neighborhoods, and is also home to refugees. Though the area had a reputation as a hotbed of crime, known as a place taxi drivers refused to enter, residents say things aren’t as bad nowadays.

But the remaining dwellers of Hacıhüsrev are likely to be pushed out as much of the neighborhood undergoes a swift facelift. Central areas have been snapped up rapidly by developers in recent years, often with the blessing of the district municipality.

Sulukule, a famous Roma neighborhood tucked behind the old city walls, was completely destroyed in 2009 and replaced with rows of marginally Ottoman-styled flats now primarily occupied by Syrian refugees. Tarlabaşı, located in the dead center of the city and inhabited by Kurds, Roma, refugees, and transgender people, is presently undergoing a profound redevelopment project that seeks to transform the area from a haven for the disenfranchised to another playground for the elite. In Fikirtepe, a low-income area near the Marmara Sea coast on the Asian side of the city, upwards of 30 construction companies have all snatched up plots of land and demolished with frenzy, creating a hellish, bombed-out environment where intact buildings sit alongside piles of rubble. Syrian refugee families have been seen living in the ruined structures.

In Hacıhüsrev, a swath of homes has been leveled in preparation for the Piyalepaşa Istanbul project, and a number of single houses outside the main construction site have also been purchased and torn down. Piles of the wreckage lie side by side inhabited houses, exuding the ambience of an urban battleground.

But all is rosy, according to muhtar (head of neighborhood affairs) Mustafa Çelik.

“No one’s taking anyone’s property by force. Those who want to sell and leave are selling and leaving,” Çelik said, claiming that the company was even paying out high six-figure sums to neighborhood dwellers who did not possess the deed to their home.

Çelik’s tiny office is located immediately adjacent to a high fence ensconcing the construction area, and he said his home also rubs up against the site, forcing him to listen to the racket day and night. This didn’t seem to a source of major concern to the muhtar, and Çelik said he is placated by the fact that the project has brought hundreds of jobs to the area.

Çelik’s unwavering support for Piyalepaşa İstanbul smelled fishy, and it didn’t take long to encounter a resident victimized by the ambitious project. Retiree Hüsnü Tekin followed this correspondent out of the muhtar’s office and described his experiences as a Hacıhüsrev renter victimized by the owner of his building.

“As a renter I spent TL 10,000 on repairs,” Tekin said, referring to the small shack that he paid TL 450 a month to rent. But the owner sold the home to Polat Holding and swiftly evicted Tekin and his family. Eventually the owner agreed to pay Tekin TL 2000, but more than a year has passed and he hasn’t seen any of the money.

“The muhtar knows about all of this,” Tekin said.

If that wasn’t enough, Tekin said that the owner’s son approached him as he left a local mosque after Friday prayer, punching him in the face and smashing his cellular phone against a wall. Tekin has taken the man to court over the attack.

While homeowners may have been quick to take the money and run, renters like Tekin have suffered in the process, while another one of İstanbul’s inner neighborhoods has been sliced apart. Before long, places like Hacıhüsrev, with their single-story shacks and winding, slender streets will fade away entirely, becoming distant memories unlikely to ever secure a place in a museum.


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Paul Osterlund

Paul Osterlund is a freelance journalist and writer based in Istanbul. You can follow him on Twitter at @Paul_Osterlund