Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

  • January 12, 2014

City & Commons

Squatters in Istanbul reclaim their ‘right to the city’ and fight for social justice in a city where big business sets the urban development agenda.

Another construction site in Istanbul. Prime Mininster Erdoğan’s special inclination towards so-called “urban renewal projects” has made them pop up all over the city. In both 2010 and 2011 Istanbul was ranked number one among European cities in terms of real estate investment and development, due to its high-speed urban transformation.

But the three-story building taking shape in the increasingly popular district of Kadiköy is not exactly contributing to the kind of urban transformation aspired by the current AKP administration. The colors, the music, and the crowd filling the corner house on this Saturday afternoon in late November are not indicating the inauguration of another shopping mall — on the contrary, they are part of the daily life of Istanbul’s first squat.

While many European cities have a long and proud squatting tradition, evolved primarily out of the problems of rising rent and lack of proper living spaces, in the case of Istanbul the focus seems to be a slightly different one. “Under the domination of money and unearned income all the commonly used places are being taken away,” one of the activists explains in Fatih Pınar’s short documentary about the new squat. “What we are after, in fact,” someone else adds, “is to create again the public spaces that have been taken from us.”

It all started with the occupation of Gezi Park this summer: “For me Gezi was a way of communicating,” states another activist. “We don’t have to sanctify those 20 or 30 days, we can realize this in every instant of our lives!” After the protest camp in Gezi Park had been violently evacuated on June 15, 2013, public forums started to be held regularly in parks all over the city and the country, where people gathered and discussed different political issues.

Then fall came. In those districts governed by opposition parties, some forums are continuing in municipality buildings, others had to look for private spaces, in spite of the forums’ public nature. In the case of Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood in Kadiköy, the local forum decided to take a different path.

The half-finished house just around the corner of the square where Yeldeğirmeni forum used to be held had been empty for twenty years, its ownership being disputed in court. “We came and opened the door. So then we said: now this is ours, this is everybody’s!” remembers Selin Top, a young woman with curly, dyed red hair, taking a break from the group work of creating living-sized stencils of the six people killed in the uprisings this summer.

Her words do not only describe the squatting process but summarize their mission as well: it was never the squatters’ intention to live in the house, like in most other European squats. Rather, it was about giving the Gezi experience a home; finding a place for the newly reclaimed sphere of interaction, political activism and non-hierarchical deliberation to put down roots. To create a free space, outside of the reach of Istanbul’s rapid urban transformation in the interest of capital — open to everyone.

Başka bir dünya mümkün (“another world is possible”) is stenciled next to the entrance of the building, which for about three months now has been called the ‘Don Quixote Social Center’ (Donkişot Sosyal Merkezi). Inside, there is no floor yet, but there is art all over the walls. There is no electricity yet, but gas lamps bathe the scene in a romantic light. And through the holes in the walls, reserved for windows, the sound of traditional Turkish live music is coming down to the street.

Once a week, the neighborhood forum is held here, every other week an international forum is held in English, art exhibitions and concerts have taken place, and on a regular basis people are invited to share their knowledge about certain political issues or ‘alternative solutions for real-world problems’: be it a Syrian refugee talking about his experiences or — like today — a workshop offered on composting.

Has this really become a space for everyone, though? Foreigners visiting or temporarily living in Istanbul regularly drop by from all parts of the city, while some of the neighbors have not even set foot inside the squatted building. Despite the fact that most of the people putting their effort into the project are local to the neighborhood, some of the neighbors still “don’t feel so connected”, explains Selin.

She remembers the camp in Gezi Park, where people of all ages, genders, classes, from all kinds of religious, political or ethnic backgrounds lived and resisted together. This united spirit, according to her, might easily be forgotten in time. The ones involved in the squat are mostly people who have already been politically active before. “So we need to keep reminding, keep growing, keep spreading this united spirit. That we have faced and lived freedom, the power of organizing and solidarity, now we can never forget, we can never let it go once again,” she says.

Some of the neighbors show their support by bringing tea or donating what they can spare. Still, Selin recognizes the need “to do something for them, to catch their attention and make them feel that this is theirs, this is everyone’s.” For her, this task is essential to the squat’s mission of creating a type of community center and free space for the neighborhood. Some ideas include activities for the children, a common kitchen, language courses, a women’s room, a library, a free shop for exchanging clothes and continuing the movie screenings which have been well-attended before.

Food also seems to be a good way to connect. Today, squatters cooked aşure, a dish which is traditionally prepared in this time of year and shared with one’s neighbors. Many of them accepted the invitation. It was almost as crowded as the common fast-breaking at the end of Ramadan — this year called Yeryüzü Sofraları (“Earth Table”) — which was celebrated with the neighborhood in the old forum square.

What does it mean to squat a building in Istanbul? One of the major aims of the new social center is to provide the opportunity for the climate of inclusive and non-hierarchical interaction, which was so common during the occupation of Gezi Park, to live on. On top of that, squatting a building for this purpose — rather than using it as private or public accommodation — also makes it part of a fight against the growing tendency to privatize and commercialize every inch of public space in the metropolis.

Turning Istanbul into a ‘global hub’ has been a central issue in Erdoğan’s election campaign and the administration of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). His understanding of a city, meanwhile, appears to be that of a resource which can be drained for the highest possible profit. In recent years, Istanbul has seen a series of violent urban transformations for which the term ‘gentrification’ is a plain euphemism. Entire low-income neighborhoods and shanty towns (gecekondu) have been demolished and sold to large-scale investors.

In order to do so, the government has systematically established the necessary institutions: a law about earthquake security provides the judicial basis to declare houses unsafe for living and up for demolishing. The public housing administration TOKI has the sufficiently wide ranging authority to execute this process.

One of the most prominent examples has been the neighborhood of Sulukule, one of the oldest permanent Roma settlements. 3,400 people were manipulated or threatened into selling their homes to private investors, or eventually forcefully evicted. As an ‘alternative’, they were offered apartments in large TOKI-build complexes far away from both the city center and their original work places and schools.

Not only were activist networks interrupted, jobs lost and big families herded together in very small spaces — creating an additional psychological burden — the rents for the TOKI-apartments were often too high for the evicted to afford them, practically leaving whole families in the street. Most of the former inhabitants of Sulukule have tried to move back to the vicinity of their old neighborhood. The houses they once owned there were demolished in 2010 and have since then been replaced by houses and offices almost ten times the price.

A similar fate has hit other neighborhoods, like Ayazma and Tarlabaşı. In the latter, a very central but run-down neighborhood right next to Taksim Square and Istanbul’s main shopping and party area, the process has already started. A large advertisement banner displaying the area’s sterile and prosperous future is pinned on the decayed facades of Tarlabasi Boulevard, making the contradictions of the rapid and violent transformation process all too obvious.

This government-directed ‘urban renewal’ does not stop at the demolition of low-income neighborhoods. Turkey’s Prime Minister seems to have quite a vivid imagination when it comes to his self-declared ‘crazy projects’. Among them are a third bridge over the Bosporus, connected to a six-lane highway in the north of the city, which, in turn, is supposed to be connected to a third airport. These projects will have a dramatic impact on Istanbul’s environment.

The first two Bosporus-bridges already caused the city to rapidly expand northwards, overrunning forest areas and contaminating lakes in its way. Istanbul is currently supplying itself with drinking water from Kocaeli, another city located about one hundred kilometers away, because the fresh water reserves around the metropolis have already become insufficient.

The original strategic plan for Istanbul, developed in 2009, foresaw a way to direct urban sprawl by means of transportation-incentives in a way that would protect the forest regions between Istanbul and the black sea. Erdoğan’s government simply cancelled the plan. Using the traffic congestions as a pretext, the clear aim behind the third bridge, the highway and the new airport is to encourage the emergence of new commercial centers, regardless of their long-term effects on Istanbul’s environment and inhabitants.

Probably one of the craziest among the crazy projects is the creation of a ‘Kanal Istanbul’, which was announced in 2011. The Kanal Istanbul is intended to parallel the Bosporus, to form another thoroughfare between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. Along with the channel, Erdoğan intends to build form scratch two new satellite towns with a capacity of about 4 million people, exceeding the population of most of Europe’s capital cities.

As Yaşar A. Adanali, PhD candidate at the Department of International Urbanism at Stuttgart University writes with regard to these ‘crazy projects’, neither the public, nor local authorities were ever part of the decision-making process. He uses the term “state of emergency regime of planning” to describe Erdoğan’s way of placing urban planning outside the reach of democratic checks and balances or public intervention.

Who benefits from the violent urban transformations is easy to deduce: Istanbul ranks fifth on the list of the world’s cities with the highest number of billionaires, while at the same time Turkey is ranked last of the 31 OECD countries in terms of social justice. People involved in real estate and the construction business pose the majority among the country’s 100 richest persons. While low-income families, Roma people, and — as in the case of Tarlabaşı — Kurds and transgender communities are forcefully removed from the center, the profit of most large-scale construction projects goes directly to the very top of the income scale.

Squatting in Istanbul is thus a statement for social justice. But it also means reclaiming the ‘right to the city’, evoked by scholars like Henri Lefevbre or David Harvey. To say “now this is ours, this is everybody’s!”, like Selin and her friends did in Yeldeğirmeni is to resist the extremely authoritarian ways of commercializing the urban commons. It is a claim to urban democracy. This kind of resistance reached an unprecedented momentum with the occupation of Gezi Park this summer. After all, everything started out as a protest against yet another large-scale urban renewal project, intended to replace the last park in Istanbul’s city center with a shopping mall.

There have even been other short-term squats before. In Sulukule for example, activists claimed space inside buildings that were about to be demolished, to offer workshops for the local children. In order to have a non-commercial student space, Bogazici University students temporarily occupied an on-campus Starbucks branch in 2011 and are currently squatting another space on campus where a branch on ING bank was about to open. Still, the squatted building in Yeldeğirmeni is something unique in Istanbul: it is the first squat on such a large scale, explicitly open to everyone, and the first time the squatters are in for the long run.

Of course they face many difficulties. Since the building the Yeldeğirmeni-forum decided to squat happens to be an abandoned construction site, a lot of money, material and work is still necessary in order to complete the construction. Recently, the band Baba Zula supported them with a solidarity-concert which brought in 10,000 Turkish lira (about 3,600 euros). This money will help to advance the construction up to a certain point, but after that the financial future of the squat remains uncertain.

The police has mostly stayed away, except for one day at the end of October. The Amsterdam School of Art was giving a workshop inside the building, the place was crowded, when suddenly ten police cars lined up outside on the street. Why they had come or who had called them remains unclear. The police held everyone inside the building and checked their identities, until, after people started to massively share the news on the internet, they decided to leave.

In the end, there is a much more complex challenge than financial resources or police hostility: how to open up an alternative space full of art without contributing to gentrification oneself? This tends to be the starting point of the well known phenomenon affecting cities around the world: artists and students move to a poor neighborhood because rents are cheap and their creativity and intellectuality turns the neighborhood into a valuable resource, exploitable by real-estate business as the it becomes more attractive, causing rents to rise.

For Kadiköy, the district that Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood is part of, this is a vital issue. Moreover, another urban renewal project is threatening to raise the rents in the area even more: the train station Haydarpaşa, a huge historical building at the water front right next to Kadiköy’s ferry harbor has been an iconic site in Istanbul  for over a 100 years. In 2010, a fire of still undefined origin destroyed part of it’s roof. Having lost it’s function to other means of transportation like the recently inaugurated intercontinental underground railway Marmaray, Haydarpaşa is now closed.

What is going to emerge in its place is not hard to guess: a privately owned 7-star hotel, next to a cruise port, surrounded by a high-class commercial and residential area — just another indication that the urban transformations that gave rise to the Gezi movement have still be left untouched. And so the struggle to reclaim the urban commons and secure the right to the city remains in full swing.


Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

Lou Zucker

Lou Zucker studies political science and sociology at Humboldt-University, Berlin. She is currently spending a semester in Istanbul, keeping her ears and eyes open to learn about the effects of Gezi in the classroom, in conversations and in the streets.

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