Syrian refugees seek shelter in crumbling Tarlabaşı buildings

 Syrian refugees seek shelter in crumbling Tarlabaşı buildings

A child looks out at the street from a partially demolished building in Tarlabaşı. Dozens of gutted historical buildings await renovation as part of a major redevelopment project pushed forth by the government. (Photo

April 06, 2014, Sunday/ 00:00:00/ PAUL BENJAMIN OSTERLUND / İstanbul

In İstanbul's Tarlabaşı, a quarter located in the dead center of the sprawling city, a devastating scene casts a grim shadow.

Entire streets of gutted historical, bay-windowed buildings stand as phantoms of their former selves, surrounded by corrugated metal fencing. In spite of their decrepit state, many of these formerly majestic structures, partially demolished in 2012 in preparation for a major gentrification initiative, are presently occupied.

On Sakız Ağacı Sokak, a street in the heart of the demolition zone, windowless buildings are covered with blankets and sheets. Groups of children can be seen peeling back the corrugated fencing that stands in front of the buildings, exiting and entering an area that looks as if it has been bombed-out. Dozens of Syrian refugees have occupied buildings that offer little more than a roof in terms of shelter.

“As soon as we kick them out, they immediately come back,” says Hakan, a friendly security guard who works at an office located near the street. The office is run by GAP İnşaat, the company facilitating the “Tarlabaşı 360” project, and it has on display a scaled-model of a “renewed” Tarlabaşı, featuring luxury residences and sleek office buildings. The project, which encompasses several hundred buildings within a sizeable section of the neighborhood, seeks to transform the low-income Tarlabaşı into a chic, trendy and inevitably pricy area. Residents, architects, lawyers and activists alike have firmly criticized the project, which has been inundated with lawsuits. The project's website claims that it seeks to renew the buildings in conjunction with their historical and architectural character. Media representatives from GAP İnşaat were not available to speak with Sunday's Zaman.

Once a middle-class neighborhood of Greeks and Armenians, Tarlabaşı became a refuge for disenfranchised groups after the original residents left the country following a harsh period in the 20th century marked by a string of events and policies that sought to force out Turkey's non-Muslim minorities. Presently inhabited by many Kurds, Roma, Africans, transgender people and foreign exchange students, Tarlabaşı is now home to a number of Syrian refugees, many of whom are living in buildings that have been awaiting “renewal” for more than two years.

When Sunday's Zaman asked why not much progress had occurred regarding new construction in Tarlabaşı, the GAP İnşaat security guard vaguely replied that the project was tied up due to historical protection codes. A crane loomed over another area of the project, where entire buildings had been demolished. A construction worker told Sunday's Zaman that they were working on widening the area, which will eventually be filled with upscale real estate. The dozens of historical buildings nearby, however, remain in a state of dilapidation, which has not stopped refugees fleeing the mayhem in Syria from -- in a cruel twist of irony -- inhabiting an area that looks as if it could be a devastated neighborhood in Homs or Aleppo.

“I noticed them coming here about a month-and-a-half ago,” says Mustafa, a portly 51-year-old who has been selling savory pastries from a cart in Tarlabaşı for 25 years. “These days, Syrians are living all over İstanbul,” he continued. Sure enough, over the past several months entire families of Syrian refugees have become fixtures on İstanbul streets, having fled the ongoing war and arriving in the city with no place to go.

A group of teenagers told Sunday's Zaman that they had observed Syrians moving into the neighborhood over the past several months, pointing to the fabric covering empty window frames on several apartments nearby. One youngster, after Sunday's Zaman asked what he thought about the ongoing project in Tarlabaşı, immediately brought up Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and launched into a flurry of profanity. His friends joined, all chiming in with language unfit to print.

Like many Tarlabaşı residents, the teenager, who was born and raised in the neighborhood, directly accused Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of displacing their neighbors and destroying their homes. Indeed, a number of controversial gentrification projects have taken place in historical neighborhoods populated by low-income residents throughout the AK Party's tenure. Such projects have been widely criticized as a means to cleanse potentially profitable neighborhoods of their poor inhabitants.

Puzzlingly, the Tarlabaşı 360 project won “Best Urban Regeneration Project” in last year's European Housing Awards. A trip to the neighborhood, however, reveals nothing but destruction and desperation. Recent reports of looting are said to have severely compromised the structural integrity of these buildings. Upon viewing their current state, it is hard to imagine their “renewal” as being possible. Last month, it was reported that a building collapsed in the area, although no one was injured. Now that many of these damaged buildings are currently occupied, another similar incident could be fatally disastrous.

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