A bucket dangles on a string from a top-floor window in one of Istanbul’s older neighborhoods; inside it, within grasp of any passerby, lie a couple of crumpled banknotes. After a while, a shopkeeper takes the money and replaces it with an order of groceries.
It’s handy way for the busy or the elderly to save themselves a walk to shops, this everyday scene demonstrates the deep community bonds that still exist in Istanbul, a metropolis of 12 million people and Turkey’s largest city. But a growing number of experts warn that Istanbul’s social fabric is being torn apart by a massive urban renewal program, in which communities are being uprooted and shunted into isolated tower blocks on the city’s fringes.
“In social terms, the choices made by Turkey today will cost it a lot in the near future,” said Professor Yves Cabannes, a former United Nations advisor on forced evictions and now chairperson of the Department of Development Planning at University College London.
Istanbul’s relatively low crime rate could be one of the first aspects to change, Cabannes and others suggest.
Despite its size, Istanbul currently ranks as one of Europe’s safest cities. Although recent comparative crime data is limited, a survey published in 2007 by the UN, European Commission, and the Gallup polling organization indicated that only 18 percent of the city’s residents had been the victim of a crime in the previous five years, the lowest rate of any major European city.
Cabannes believes the strong sense of community in many of the city’s poorer districts is a key reason why Istanbul has such a low crime rate.
“The spatial and social patterns of Istanbul are still community-led,” he said. “Religious or social structures don’t easily allow the penetration of violence, and this is gold in a city. If you destroy it, you are leaving a big gap for violence to install itself.”
Many of Istanbul’s traditional neighborhoods are now subject to urban renewal plans. In some cases, the residents of poor, centrally located neighborhoods have been compelled to move to new high-rise housing projects as far as 40 kilometers from their former homes.
Critics say the new neighborhoods are built without proper recreational or community facilities and in areas with scant job opportunities.
“Right now, it’s merely a real estate exercise,” said Cabannes. “There has to be an integrated approach, taking into account livelihoods, inter-generational relationships, gender aspects, and transportation.”
One of these new communities is Bezirganbahçe, a cluster of pastel-colored tower blocks fringed by barren fields on the city’s western edge. From her apartment high in one of the 12-story towers, 45-year-old resident Fatma Ozdemir describes the development as “an open-air jail.”
In 2007, around 900 mainly Kurdish families moved here when they were evicted from their former homes in Ayazma, a shanty neighborhood now being redeveloped into a complex of luxury apartments. In exchange, they were given new flats, for which they must now pay monthly.
The move has driven many of the families deeper into poverty. Ozdemir’s husband, Osman, estimates that payments on his family’s new flat and charges for public utilities have added nearly 400 lira ($220) to their monthly bills. The 52-year-old builder cannot find work to cover those expenses, and will soon leave his family to take up a three-month construction job in northern Iraq.
“In Ayazma, it was like a village,” he recounted. “There were small houses and when you went into the street you could see everyone. Here, I don’t even know where some of my best friends live. I just know the shopkeepers, and all I say to them is ‘Hello, how are you?’”
Family members say they have noted an increase in crime. “I lived in Ayazma for 14 years, and in that time I didn’t witness any serious crime – only one time, my son’s bicycle was stolen,” he continued. “Here I hear far more often about break-ins and robberies, and around the medical clinic there is heroin dealing after midnight.”
Cihan Baysal, a lawyer and human rights activist who has been working with Ayazma residents since 2005, says the move to Bezirganbahçe brought a striking change among the neighborhood’s teenagers and young adults. “[In Ayazma,] young people would respect their elders, they would dress a certain way and not smoke in public,” Baysal said. “When I went to Bezirganbahçe, the way they behaved was completely different. Here, there were no activities for them, and they would start wandering around other neighborhoods. They became rebellious, against the system. and against everything.”
After groups of Kurdish youths from Ayazma clashed with Turkish youths who had also moved into the neighborhood, six apartment blocks were given over exclusively for police officers and their families in 2009, she added.
What angers both Cabannes and Baysal is that the Turkish government, in formulating housing policies, opted to follow a faulty model. “We know for certain that putting people together in blocks does not work,” said Cabannes. “If you segregate a city like this, you will have very antagonistic tensions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’… It will create ghettoes for the poor, with all that that carries with it.”
Turkey’s Environment and Planning Ministry and its public housing administration, TOKI, both declined to respond to the criticism. Local government officials failed to respond to requests for comment.
But in Bezirganbahçe, all the residents who spoke to Eurasianet.org -- both those from Ayazma and those who moved to the suburb by choice – shared doubts about whether a sense of community could ever emerge.
One police officer, who declined to give his name, liked the fresh air and open space, and said that crime was no different from elsewhere in Istanbul, but added that maintaining security was hard.
“People here are like closed boxes. No one knows what the other people are doing.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.