Claire Nelischer manages Communications + Operations for the Centre for City Ecology in Toronto and is a part of the team coordinating the Arrival City edition of the City Builder Book Club. Claire is a graduate of the Master of City and Regional Planning program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, where she focused on the role of community-based cultural activity in supporting neighbourhood sustainability. She was a Fellow at the Pratt Center for Community Development with the Center’s Arts, Culture and Sustainability Project and worked with Fourth Arts Block in the East Village. Most recently, Claire worked with Jane’s Walk’s Toronto project office as a Designer and Outreach coordinator.
Claire Nelischer on Arrival City Chapter 6: The death and life of a great arrival city
“In the fight for space in the city, the main weapon of the rural émigré is physical presence.” – Doug Saunders, Arrival City
In all arrival cities, new immigrants strive to secure a lasting physical, social, and economic presence for themselves in their new urban home. But the ways in which this struggle unfolded (and continues to unfold) in Istanbul is a striking example of the power of physical presence and place in fostering immigrant integration, success, and belonging. And the story of the city’s gecekondu (night-arrival) neighbourhoods, as described by Saunders in Chapter 6 of Arrival City, are a clear illustration of this dynamic.
As Saunders notes, the story of Istanbul’s gecekondu begins with ambiguous land ownership – a product of a complex political history in Turkey wherein former monarchs were removed of their righs to land ownership. He goes on to describe how, in the 1950s, as Turkey shifted from a largely subsistence, peasant-driven agricultural system to an industrialized, urban economy, rural dwellers flocked to the city to participate in the new economy, and this ambiguous land ownership became a key factor in immigrant settlement. While many jobs were available, the housing and social services required to support these new arrivals were not adequate. The lack of affordable housing in the city prompted these new residents to create user-built houses on claimed land. The availability of large swaths of unmarked land with no official ownership on the outskirts of town made these first gecekondu settlements possible, and they proliferated.
Saunders tells the story of a long struggle for recognition and participation on behalf of the gecekondu residents. Amnesty laws in the 1960s and ’70s transformed these self-built settlements into “legitimate, tax-paying, and vote-delivering neighbourhoods and their tens of millions of citizens into full participants in the economy”. Saunders goes on to chart the complex social, political, and economic forces that influenced political and social movements within the city and on the margins that shaped the fate of the gecekondu and ultimately led to the declaration of all gecekondu settlements as legal and the granting of full home and land ownership to residents.
With ownership of their homes, residents were given the option to upgrade their existing homes, build new apartments, or sell their property to developers. And with these options, gecekondu residents were finally integrated as full participants in the political, economic, and social structure of Istanbul. Here we see a common Arrival City theme in action: that of the importance of homeownership as a means through which new immigrants secure their physical, social, and economic place in the city.
What was most interesting to me was learning about the changes in the years following the official legalization and integration of the gecekondu. In sharing the stories of residents who arrived in the community of Mustafa Kemal during the 1990s and after, Saunders illustrates how the prospects for new immigrants to the gecekondu have changed. While the shifts in the 1980s transformed gecekondu residents into full economic and political participants in the city by means of property ownership that led to economic empowerment and entrance into dominant society, newer arrivals have not been able to break into the middle class in the same way. A new trade-driven economy with poor job security in combination with a dearth of available open land has made homeownership unattainable for this new generation of rural-urban migrants, forcing many to remain perpetual renters. Saunders notes that while the legalization of the gecekondu generated wealth amongst the newly-declared homeowners, the absence of a significant government role in their development has resulted in a lack of adequate social assistance, schools, transit, and key community services. Newcomers today are now faced with inaccessible homeownership as well as a lack of these key social structures that facilitate arrival, settlement, and economic betterment, and as are result, these new residents are not experiencing the same levels of success in the arrival city as their predecessors.
Like Toronto’s early arrival city shacks (described in Chapter 5), the case of Istanbul’s gecekondu illustrates how crucial physical presence and access to land ownership is for the success of immigrants in the arrival city. The right to own land, to make one’s physical presence secure and lasting, and to generate wealth from homeownership is key to facilitating the full political, social, and economic enfranchisement of new immigrants. Arrival City author Doug Saunders recently wrote about this process and how, as in Istanbul, the prospects for new immigrants to Toronto are diminished as homeownership becomes increasingly unattainable in the city. Istanbuls’ gecekondu are a hopeful reminder of the possibility of securing a place in the arrival city, but also of the necessity to ensure that such a possibility remains open for newer waves of immigrants.
By Claire Nelischer