CH 6: The death and life of a great arrival city

Image by Vincent Teeuwen -
Image by Vincent Teeuwen –

clairenelischerClaire 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

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Priyanga J says:

    Doug Saunders beautifully articulates the achievements, challenges and limitations of an arrival city in chapter six,” The Death and Life of a Great Arrival City – Istanbul”. Through the narration of personal stories of individuals born in different generations, one can get the sense of the various changes and opportunities a city can provide an individual at different points in time (socially, economically and politically). From Sabri Kocyigit’s generation, the generation responsible for building “gecekondu” (night-arrivals), to the current new globalized middle class in Istanbul, one can see that there have been shifts in the thinking of modern residents of Istanbul in comparison to their ancestors as well as the needs of its people have changed to more of a profit based bourgeois culture. Furthermore, a once uni-ethnic place, has now changed into residents with various identities and cultures (Alevis, Kurds, Turkish, Sunnis and etc.)
    Sabri’s generation consisted of people that were drawn to the city because of employment opportunities. His generation consisted of individuals who built settlements for the purposes of personal use, instead of market value. The second-generation immigrants, such as Kemal Dogans’ generation, are largely tenants, who rent out settlements for living and retail space. It is interesting to note that when Sabri arrived in Istanbul and started a living, it was due to the employment opportunities the city promised. In contrast, Kemal’s generation is arriving in the city due to push factors from rural areas such as rural deprivation. What can be learned from the current wave of migration from rural areas to urban areas is that it is producing high poverty rates in the city. Current rural-urban migrants cannot afford what Sabri and his colleagues once did (basic tools and resources to build a “gecekondu”).
    What I can take away from this chapter is that the creators of the settlements (“gecekondu”) of what is frowned upon in modern day Istanbul, paved a way for future generations to be entitled to land and property. What I can also take away from this chapter is that without legal entitlement to land and property, during times of crisis, such as a collapse of a political regime, it is a potential threat to the stability of settlement dwellers. Through Saunders depiction of the past and present conditions of Istanbul’s residents, I take away that a city is forever changing and growing in various ways, providing opportunities to certain groups as well as posing limits to others depending on their needs and livelihood.

  2. Nandeeta A. says:

    CHAPTER 6: The Death and Life of a Great Arrival City

    This chapter situates the reader in Istanbul where Saunders’ emphasizes the importance of secure housing as a symbol of permanence and identity in the city. The main struggle that new immigrants face is securing a permanence in their new urban home. This struggle can be viewed from various angles such as physical, social and economic as all of those freedoms are associated with the fight for home-ownership. The example of Istanbul begins with the evidence that in the 1950’s, the large peasant-driven agricultural system shifted to an urban, industrialized economy. Rural inhabitants rushed to the city to partake in the upcoming urban economy. However, ingrained in this new development, was the ambiguity of land ownership. As a result of Turkey’s complex political history, former monarchs were stripped of their land ownership rights. Saunders’ goes on to explain that though industrial development was on the rise, adequate housing and social services for new arrivals was nonexistent. This prompted the residents such as Sabri Kocyigit to build houses on unmarked land that they would claim. These settlements were built on large expanses of unclaimed land on the outskirts of town and were titled Gecekondu (night-settled/night-arrivals) settlements.

    One of the main struggles for the Gecekondu settlements was the battle for recognition as legitimate citizens. Only until the 1960’s-80’s, did Amnesty laws raise the recognition of these user-built developments as legitimate, tax-paying and eligible voting communities (Saunders, 2010). These settlements housed tens of millions of citizens and only after this law were they allowed full participation in the economy. Political and social movements would lead to the legal granting to citizens of full home and land ownership. With ownership, came the freedom to make changes and to upgrade your living quarters. This allowed residents to build new apartments or sell their property if so desired. What matters here is that they were given options that they could take without penalty. Saunders’ confirms the significance of secure home ownership as a defining characteristic for a citizen’s place in society. However, newer arrivals such as Kemal Dogan and his generation, have not been so fortunate. After the full recognition of the Gecekondu settlements, a trade-driven economy was generated which meant poor job security as well as the lack of available residential land. This new generation of arrivals were forced into renting living and retail spaces. Despite the initial recognition, there was hardly any representation within the settlements that would voice the need for social assistance, schools, transit and other necessities to community development. Therefore, there was a lack of these key community features. This makes the struggle for newer arrivals even harder as there is little housing availability as well as a lack of social assistance. It is challenging to break into the middle-class sector as previous arrivals did.

    In conclusion, it is interesting to observe the high levels of migration from rural areas to city spaces are raising the poverty levels of the city. However, in some cases, there is no choice but to evacuate the rural developments due to state deprivation. More focus is put on the city while the outlying rural developments are neglected. While the first generation of Istanbul’s arrivals were pulled to the city due to big promises of success the second generation was pushed out of their rural homes due to neglect. It is interesting to note how real push and pull factors are and how constantly they affect migration. It is also important to understand how significant owning land and property is in the security of your economic, social and political presence of inhabited city.

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