The neighbourhood of the back of Trump Towers is Kuştepe. It is generally defined as a demolished ”gecekondu (shanty house)” area. The stereotype about that neighbourhood is that it’s “the nest of crime”. We conducted a research about Kuştepe to find out its current life. Our main target is to answer the question, “Is this stereotype true?”
To find the true information about this neighbourhood we passed through the “first” village headmen (that which we call “muhtar” in Turkish), as well as the small grocer in the neighbourhood (“bakkal” in Turkish). Our first interview started with “the tea” that the muhtar treated us to. He is not the most pleasure with Kuştepe unfortunately. He complained about the crime rates and the safety problem of the neighbourhood. He said: “most of “low middle class” in Kuştepe just surround their places by wire because of the thieves, they not only steal stuff, money etc. from houses but also destroy the gardens”. Also he remarks the case about the diversity of ethnic groups living in Kuştepe. He said:” Most of the settlers belong to the same origin, they are generally Romani. But the cultural habits are different in a one sense so they generally don’t like each other.” The interesting point is that although they are all from same origin and they have nearly same cultural behaviour, items etc. they don’t get along together.
The old culture of the neighbourhood is generally safe in Kuştepe. The Romani settlers are very welcoming, when we enter the streets they define us as “strange” and tried to help us. They welcomed us in their houses. Most of women were washing carpet on streets, the children were running around. The joy of neighbourhood is still there in comparison to most of other İstanbul neighbourhoods.
However, we encounter the phobia of other as the muhtar mentioned above. “Other” in that case means someone does not belong directly one’s own group. It is xenophobe. For instance, one can be Romani who come from Kayseri however the other for someone who is also Romani but from different region let say Trabzon. One of the residents, let’s call her Ayşe Yenge, welcomed us to her home and she talked about the “other”; Kuştepe got a lot of migrants. The original neighbourhood settlers generally moved from there because of the corruption of the migrants. The street of X and Y (I hid the original name of street to avert the possible discrimination), are not safe. Most settlers of these streets are thieves and they are dirty people. As you see we are not in contrast to general stereotypes against Romani’s. The dirty one is others.” So, you can see the point of “the other” in Ayşe Yenge’s speech. She is Romani but the people who are also Romani but live in X and Y streets make them other. The settlers not from these street create “we” for Ayşe Yenge, and she also in that “we”.
Kuştepe was not originally settled as a “gecekondu” neighbourhood. Before 1950’s in Kuştepe, the settlement was sparse. During the demolishment of gecekondu neighbourhoods in 1950, hundreds of people had to leave their houses, they were faced with severe life- threatening and the only solution to their problems was to come together and form associations. In 1951 the association called “Şişli Gecekondularını İhya ve Güzelleştirme Derneği” was formed, the head of the association, Naim Tanyeri, explained their purpose as reconstructing the “gecekondu” buildings which were substandard and illegal, with the help of municipalities and related authorities. That would help the settlers to live in proper environment and standards as every citizen deserves.
The efforts of this association could be considered as a struggle. Every step they took were peaceful and legal and yet they were shut down several times but they did not stop. They wrote letters to authorities, they organized legal demonstrations and finally, in 1953 law No. 6188 passed, municipality owned lands were going to be allocated to needy families. They discussed specifications of the law with authorities, and tried to obtain the most beneficial outcome for the settlers. People who used to live in gecekondu districts in Zincirlikuyu, Vefa and Esentepe settled in Kuştepe and this is how Kuştepe was created. During the first years of settlement after the law passed, the situation in Kuştepe was unpleasant. The region lacked the necessary infrastructure, some families had to live in tents for months because the construction period was taking a long time. With the efforts of the association, living conditions got better and in several years the infrastructure investments were completed.
When we look at the demographic structure in Kuştepe, we see that it is a mixture of different ethnic groups. Romani people, “Kayserililer”, and “Karadenizliler”, constitute the majorities in the area. According to the settlers, there is tension between the groups due to several reasons, each ethnic group has its own “kahvehane”. Even though the bonds within the groups are strong, it is hard to talk about solidarity of all settlers in Kuştepe.
In 1997, Bilgi University settled in Kuştepe. The university conducted several researches in the area with the purpose of understanding the needs of people and finding ways to improve the living standards in Kuştepe, volunteers from the organizes many educative seminars and workshops for the settlers. Also scholarship opportunities were offered to students from Kuştepe. In 2006, however, due to financial issues, Bilgi Education and Culture Foundation sold 50% of the University to an American firm which doesn’t share the same social philosophy with the foundation. Most of the faculties in Kuştepe have moved to Santral Campus, since then Bilgi University became less active in Kuştepe.
Kuştepe is a product of a non-governmental organization and the head of the association “Şişli Gecekondularını İhya ve Güzelleştirme Derneği”, Naim Tanyeri, was actively involved in eight different non-governmental organizations, he worked very hard to turn Kuştepe into a pleasant place for its settlers.
This was the situation in 1950’s and 1960’s. Today, however, we don’t see any evidence of such unified organizations. There is one association, Kuştepe Romani Art House, which could be considered as “active”. Unfortunately, there is no proper website of this association, we gathered the information from the head of the association, M.S.Ş, and from the settlers in Kuştepe.
The art house was opened in 2014, it provides classrooms for activities organized by volunteers outside of Kuştepe. However, the art house itself doesn’t have an organized structure, volunteer groups have to prepare their own schedule and work accordingly. The association doesn’t provide any information about the needs of the settlers to the volunteer groups– the actually learned that no one has knocked on the settlers’ doors and inquired about their needs and problems.
There is an ongoing project in Kuştepe run by Boğaziçi Social Service Club, volunteer students organize the workshops themselves for children with Romani culture. What is more problematic here is that as mentioned above, Kuştepe has a mixed demographic structure and there is tension between the ethnic groups. So a “Kayserili” family, for example, claim that they do not want to send their children to the “Romani” Art House. M.Ş.E., the head of the association, claims that there is no ethnic discrimination within the association, all children living in Kuştepe are welcomed to participate in the workshops. However, according to the short interviews we conducted with the settlers, we have reason to believe that other ethnicities living in Kuştepe does not share his opinion, they say: “The name of the association is Romani Art House, of course we feel discriminated.”
We observed a similar structure of the patron client relationship in the case of urban renewal plans regarding Kuştepe. From our interviews with the settlers and with the Şişli Municipality, we learned that the municipality plans an urban renewal project in some parts of the Kuştepe district which are the regions with highest crime rates and worst economic conditions. The fact is that most settlers in those areas actually want an urban renewal project with the condition of not being left without a house. They rely on the associations to defend their rights and the municipality is trying to make a deal with the associations. What is questionable here is that whether the outcomes will be to the settlers’ best interest or not, since this particular chain of patron- client bonds is very open to corruption.
At the end of this article, I would like to answer the question above: “Is this stereotype true?” … Actually, to figure out that, there is no necessary to check the crime list of the police officer. Find someone who lives there for a while is enough. Most of settlers normalize “the voice of siren that belongs to police cars… However, we could not define as a place that attracted by police is as a “nest of crime”. Shortly, Kuştepe is not a “nest of crime”; It is a poverty-torn area that fosters space and reason for crime; there is little opportunity for education and a different way of life. The interventions that have tried have failed, thus it remains forgotten. There is no job opportunity as most settlers say for their children, youths, and others so they push to sell drugs, or stealing to survive. This is my view. What about yours?
In colloboration with Remziye Aslan and Sueda Evirgen.
reader,walker,traveler of İstanbul. student, daughter and friend of someones. volunteer in Nonviolent Education and Research Center, enjoy living and being :)