Istanbul – same, same but different

It’s been three weeks since I moved to Istanbul from Barcelona. Signs of the change in context were already visible on the way home from the airport. I had a long conversation with the girl next to me on the bus. Striking conversation on public transport was not usual through my time in Barcelona, and especially not in Germany! All the taxi guys tried to con the “tourist” and the footpaths kept disappearing. Near Taksim Square, corn, chestnuts and shwarma were being sold on the really crowded street of Istiklal. Where was I! It felt so familiar.

I learnt that a C is pronounced as a J. There are special characters like ğ, which is silent, but stretches the vowel before it. Then ç and ş are ch and sh. There is also “ı”, an i without a dot. Seems like it’s pronounced as “uh”. I replaced gracias with Teşekkürler, salud with çok yaşa. It was a confusing first week. From one foreign language that I’d just gotten comfortable with to a brand new one.

In this city I can ferry across to another continent in 20 minutes and feel an almost triumphant – hey I’m in Asia, closer to home! Now there exists a time difference with Spain while it has reduced with India. I’ve moved some steps towards home, much more than geographically. I am amazed everyday by how similar and yet how different it is from my country, especially in the stage of its urban development. Everything is between what I know as home and the places I recently got to call home.

In my neighborhood in Istanbul, the municipality’s garbage bins don’t have lids, but the unsegregated waste is in little plastic bags. So you see the waste but you don’t really see it overflowing, it’s contained. The glass is collected in separate bins. Did you know in Germany and Austria they have separate bins for green, brown and white glass? Whaaat? There are a few scrap dealers with a mountain of cardboard loaded on their bicycles. But I am not sure who is segregating the organic from the plastic, metal etc. and who has the monopoly for the segregated scrap. Are they wastepickers? You don’t see them. Middlemen, big bosses? I hear that a few years ago they detected ecolli in the waters near the city, although in recent times, massive water treatment was carried out and you can at least swim near the islands. Last weekend we went down to the islands near Istanbul and swam in the Marmara Sea, from where you get an idea of the expanse of this city. Stark white and steel grey high-rises have conquered the hills of Istanbul; these contrast with large chunks of much smaller rickety and sombre blocks, some of them single-storey homes – these are most probably “gecekondus”.

Gece = at night kondu = to be placed/to settle.

Gecekondus are the informal, or in many cases technically “illegal” settlements of Turkey. I’ve had a chance to visit three very different Gecekondus till now. One had little cottages with gardens, almost invisible being tucked away in a hill near the Olympic Stadium to the west of the city. Another had gated communities with apartment blocks. With jhopadpattis of India you refer to “jhopadis” (shacks), but the word gecekondu does not indicate the physicality of the homes, but about how it was built. A basic gecekondu dwelling could be self-built, possibly with the support of the community, and from there the physical character of the gecekondu keeps changes incrementally. It maybe a shack, or a “villakondu” with gardens, or an “apartmentkondu”. Thus it is not uncommon to see different economic classes in one gecekondu. With Istanbul’s mad growth (around 15 million out of Turkey’s 80 million citizens), evicting gecekondus to make way for “development” has been commonplace. But now some of the earlier gecekondus that were evicted and relocated in the past, face eviction threats yet again since the earlier peripheries are new centers. The scale of these carried out evictions can be understood here.

In India’s burgeoning metropolises and in Istanbul, the shanty towns are heavily stigmatized. In both contexts a “slum free” vocabulary is evident. Or if it’s not slum free, the least you can do is hide the slums, like Delhi did for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. With a colossal scale and thirst for development, evictions are accepted as the natural trajectory for face-lifting pockets across the city. (For example: Istanbul’s Megacity projects and India’s Smart City Mission). This calls for solid slum-rehabilitation/upgrading policies, which protect the inhabitants’ right to housing alongside their social fabric, acquired through years of community living.

Keeping in mind the difference in the size of the country and the whopping difference in population: India ~ 1.25 billion and Turkey ~ 80 million, I am intrigued by the differences and similarities in the gecekondus of Turkey and the jhopadpatties of India. Besides the obvious and large differences in scale, density and services (most gecekondus have access to services like water and sanitation), there are questions on the legal framework for slum rehabilitation, the housing typologies, land tenure, the degree of risk they face in terms of eviction and disaster resilience, and finally how communities confront these threats. More on this, coming up.

121) Gecekondus of Güvercintepe in the west of Istanbul
Source: Author

352) Mahmud Şevket Paşa Gecekondu in Okmeydani, Istanbul
Source: Author

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 1.22.04 PMScreen Shot 2017-07-03 at 1.23.46 PM3) Above: Mahmud Şevket Paşa, Okmeydani, Istanbul
Below: India’s most known slum, Dharavi, Mumbai
Source: Google maps

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