INTERVIEW: Burcu Şentürk on migration and urban poverty in Turkey

INTERVIEW: Burcu Şentürk on migration and urban poverty in Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Burcu Şentürk on migration and urban poverty in Turkey

A woman watches her neighborhood get demolished as part of an urban transformation project in the capital Ankara. AA photo

Dynamic urban changes have been central to Turkey’s modern political history. From the Kemalist nation-building project, to the dawn of multi-party democracy in the 1950s, to violence between left and right in the 1970s, to the rise of Islamism after the 1980 coup d’état, cities have always been the country’s political bellwether.

Ege University academic Burcu Şentürk’s “Urban Poverty in Turkey: Development and Modernisation in Low-Income Communities” (reviewed in HDN here) considers Turkish history through the window of poor neighborhoods on the urban periphery. It particularly focuses on the trajectory of makeshift slum “gecekondu” neighborhoods built by rural migrants on the edge of major cities from the 1950s. 

Şentürk spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her book, as well as what gecekondus tell us about Turkey’s political past and present.

You lived for a number of years in a gecekondu in the Ege neighborhood of Ankara to conduct the research. What was that was like as an experience? What was most challenging about it?

The most challenging part was not about the politics or my research. It was the personal side. I had to challenge my communication skills; I had to make people there recognize me as a researcher. Why should they talk to me? I was asking them for their time and asking them to talk about their private lives without giving them anything in return. So I had to make them recognize my position there. I also had to change all my life settings. I lived there in a gecekondu house without any heating and brought my parents along too. So it was a personal journey.

Informal housing first started appearing on a significant scale on Turkey’s urban margins in the 1950s, as rural migrants started moving to cities. How did this process start, what were its causes, and how did it accelerate over time?

The very first gecekondu houses appeared around the 1930s in Ankara, but they were just a few pioneers. In due course it was not limited to Ankara. In the 1950s, the U.S. Marshall Plan of aid was introduced, which meant that Turkey started to invest in roads and irrigation systems in rural areas. This brought in mechanization in agricultural production and led to surplus labor in rural areas. Many of these unemployed rural people then decided to try their chances in the urban areas. 

We see another macro change when we look at urban areas. Turkey started to employ import substitution policies, which meant it would have national industry, leading to an increasing need of urban workers. But when rural migrants came to urban areas - Istanbul, Ankara or other city centers - they couldn't find affordable housing. There was no social housing so they had to solve their own problems. They found empty plots that were not privately owned, occupied them, and built their own houses. These were not houses in the complete sense – they were just basically four walls made with any kind of material and a roof, giving the shape of a finished house in just one night. If you had such a house then the municipal teams could not demolish it without any permission. In due course, they added more rooms. 

When the number of rural migrants increased, especially in the 1960s, the government couldn't remain silent. These migrants were doing marginal, low-paid jobs but they were still a kind of vote pool for politicians. They had concrete demands that were not too expensive - such as title deeds and infrastructure - and they were ready to provide their own labor. So a dialogue between governments and gecekondu dwellers started around the 1960s. One result of this dialogue was the Gecekondu Law passed in 1966.

Most of the residents in Ege are from the Alevi religious minority. But there are also some Sunnis. How did that dynamic play out during the 1970s, which was a period of near-civil war in parts of Turkish cities between left and right? 

People have different kinds of belonging. People have ideological belongings and they have community belonging. The question is: Which is more powerful? I found during my study that belonging to your community is more powerful than any kind of other belonging. Of course, people have political identities and belongings that are very important, but people in Ege built up a new life together in their neighborhood. So their belonging to the community overcame their sense of belonging to a political ideology. For example, for a Sunni person in Ege, your next-door neighbor may be an Alevi but you don't mind because your neighbor is also saving you from a demolition team, giving you a meal, taking care of your children when you're away. So of course there was an Alevi and Sunni conflict, but this conflict was happening outside the neighborhood. Within the neighborhood everyone knew each other, so they were not just in the "Sunni" and "Alevi" categories. The Ege neighborhood shows that if people knew each other and shared part of their lives, thinking they had the same interests, their political identities could not divide them.

I wonder if there is not some romanticization or nostalgia in how people look back to this era. After all, there was also plenty of violence and bloodshed in gecekondu neighborhoods between religious and political groups. 

Yes there is some romanticizing, because they missed their old days when they were in more solidarity and were surrounded by a wider community. But they did also mention the violence and the conflict between Alevis and Sunnis. Their emphasis on solidarity was more powerful than their emphasis on division and violence. Some of my interviewees in Ege spoke about the Alevi-Sunni divide and violence, but they also said that within the neighborhood extreme left-wing and right-wing groups did not harm each other.

Another Sunni woman said she used to go to the municipality, for example, with left-wing and Alevi women, because they all saw that they shared the same neighborhood so they should collaborate with each other. If human groups see a common interest, they can come together and transcend political separation dynamics. 

The crackdown after the 1980 military coup led to another wave of urbanization in the 1980s, prompted by the cut in subsidies to rural agricultural producers. You describe this as a time of social breakdown, when earlier solidarity collapsed in gecekondu neighborhoods. What caused it and what were the effects?

The change in Turkey’s macro political economy and development policies led to more and more rural migrants moving to cities. In the job market and the housing market, the second comers were at a disadvantage compared to the first comers. 

The new development policy was based on producing for the global market, opening the country to the global market. In order to decrease the cost of production, cheap unskilled labor was needed, and this kind of labor could be met by rural migrants. Informal production was enlarged, which meant an increase in jobs with no security and jobs with very poor conditions and payments. All these jobs were taken by the second-wave migrants. 

For the first wave of migrants, expectations in accommodation and jobs were more or less the same. But for the migrants who came after the 1980 coup, expectations changed. Once residents in Ege thought they were the same people with the same chances and the same resources, but now they saw a difference: In the job market, one was now an employer and the other was an employee; in the real estate market, one was a renter and the other was a landlord. They started to see that their interests were not the same. 

Left-wing groups were crucial in helping many poor areas secure services in the 1960s and 70s. But they were crushed after the 1980 military coup. In many places, Islamist groups stepped into the vacuum. How did that happen?

When rural migrants came to the city, everyone looked down on them. For liberals or Kemalists they were polluting and corrupting the city. In the earliest decades of their migration the Islamist movement was not a big grassroots movement. It was only the left-wing people who hailed the rural newcomers as the "halk" [the people] or the proletariat. So the left-wing really valued the rural migrants and tried to based all its activities among the grassroots on the outskirts of the city. They were not just chatting about world politics and smoking and drinking. Every left-wing group had a responsible person in every gecekondu neighborhood, organizing education facilities, teaching local women how to read and write, etc.

But when the post-coup regime cracked down on the left-wing people, killing or imprisoning them, it left a vacuum. The state was not protecting those areas, so of course this space had to be filled by something. Rising Islamist groups started to take control of the same areas. Even though Ege is a mostly Alevi area, Sunni Islamist groups were establishing Quran courses in some houses there. Islamic groups used the same strategies as leftist groups: They went to homes and built up close relations with family members. Just as left-wing groups helped poor people access resources, Islamist groups did the same. They tried to find jobs for the men and help households with their needs.

I also want to address the issue of “urban transformation,” through which the authorities aimed to clear out gecekondus and replace them with apartment blocks. A further divide emerged between Ege residents who owned the title deeds to their homes and those who did not. Could you just explain this process? 

Until an urban area becomes valuable, nobody really looks at it and the people there live peacefully with less resources. In Ege, the area once had no value and was even called "Çöplük" [rubbish dump]. It didn't even have a bus service connecting it to the city center. People told me that in the old days everyone's shoes were covered in mud because they didn't have proper roads. When they went into the city center people could see they were from Ege as it was obvious from the mud on their shoes.

But over time Ege started to become more valuable. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the city started to expand, so Ege was not at the margins anymore. Second, the new bourgeoisie or middle class was looking for peaceful areas away from the "dangerous" and "dirty" city center. Ege, which was not at the margins anymore, started to become popular and some shopping malls started to be built close to it.

This all increased the value of the Ege land. And if you're running a city to make money, you may think it's a big waste of resources to leave Ege to the poor people. If the bourgeois or white collar people live in Ege it would increase the brand value of the city. This is the general tendency of all cities around the world: If somewhere gets valuable, it becomes less profitable to leave it to the poorest people.

As Ege became more valuable, construction firms started to move in. The local Mamak Municipality drew up a plan, showing a number of high-rises, how they would be built, how many floors they should have, etc. The construction firms were then given the right to build high rises according to that plan, and started to come to agreements with locals. The people of Ege were not forced to enter into an agreement with the construction firms, but because most people were entering agreements the rest also had to. These were poor people who only owned their homes and nothing else. So for them it looked like a profitable deal: If they sold their gecekondu house they could get a more valuable house. 

But when the urban transformation process started they started to get more realistic. For example, they may be able to get a better house, but how would they be able to pay the higher heating costs? Or how would they be able to pay the monthly payments for the new building, which could be as high as 200 or 300 Turkish Liras? People also thought about cultural things. For example, all their relations were based on local neighborhood ties. Their life was based on social ties, through which they found their jobs and their gecekondu plots. With whom could they have such social relations in the new high-rise luxury apartment blocks? 

Also, their lifestyle did not fit very well into life in the high rises. For example, women in slum areas like to sit in front of their doors with their neighbors around, drinking tea, or doing jobs sitting in front of their doors. How can you do the same in an apartment block? Most of the women made home-based produce. They used their courtyard to come together with other women for this, and if they moved to a high-rise apartment they couldn't do it anymore. Some of my interviewees told me that for them life in the apartment was "like a prison," but they had no choice.

For those who did not have title deeds for their gecekondu homes, we see another face of urban transformation. Although they had lived in Ege for decades, people without title deeds weren't given anything. They just had to leave the area. So a divide emerged between the title deed holders and those with no title deeds. What I drew from all this is that once people believed they had different interests, they reject collaboration. 

But in the end, most people - even those who owned the title deeds to their gecekondus - could not remain in their old neighborhood after urban transformation due to financial and cultural lifestyle reasons. Earlier this year I visited the area in Ege where I lived for the research and I couldn't find any of my old neighbors or interviewees. There were luxury apartment blocks with security guards at the gates and I couldn't even get access to look around.

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