Homes of resistance

Pictures and text by: Moa Aulanko – 

A look into the gecekondus of Gülsuyu and Gülensu

On the outskirts of Istanbul the neighbourhood of Gülsuyu and Gülensu overlooks the sea. Gecekondus are low, self-built houses dating from the 1950’s. “Gecekondu literally means ‘built overnight’,” says Firat Genç, professor in urbanisation and sociology at Bilgi University in Istanbul. The gecekondus can be found in the area even though the municipality wants to demolish them, like they have in many other areas. “I think that you can feel that it’s different than the other poor neighbourhoods,” Genç adds. These gecekondus still stand there because of the resistance of the residents. “This was almost the only neighbourhood who could fight back the urban transformation movement,” says Emrah Altinok, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture at Bilgi University.   


Views. The neighbourhood of Gülsuyu and Gülensu is located on the top of a hill, with a view over the sea of Marmara. “The location is really good for redeveloping the area. Around it you can also find gated communities,” says Firat Genç. Emrah Altinok has a similar view. “The area has a unique context with the beautiful Sea of Marmara with a view of the Princess Islands. It’s logical to invest there if you are looking for investment opportunities.”

Gecekondu. Gecekondus were built since the 1950’s because of the rapid industrialisation of Turkey. “People coming to the cities needed places to live in,” says Firat Genç. He explains that the state wasn’t able to offer that at that time. “Rather than building social housing, they just let the migrants coming to the cities to occupy the public lands.” Gecekondos are housing units built on the occupied public lands.

Rough. The living conditions in the gecekondus were really bad in the beginning in the 1950’s. “It wasn’t a rosy story. They didn’t have any kind of public transport or any water systems. The women had to go to public water fountains and sometimes wait for hours,” says Firat Genç.

Poverty. “Almost 20 percent of population of the two neighbourhoods are living in poverty,” says Emrah Altinok. The poverty is not only connected to economical dimensions, but also to social and psychological ones. “These issues should be taken care of by the municipality. Social programs are important when rebuilding these kinds of neighbourhoods where poverty is present.” 


United. The neighbourhoods of Gülsuyu and Gülensu have a diverse ideological structures but through communication they unite. When the municipality wanted to demolish the gecekondus the people didn’t want to give in without a fight. “In these kinds of cases when their overall presence is under attack in their neighbourhood, then they get together – they unite,” Emrah Altinok says. 

Religion. “I’ve realised realised that some of the united communities, segments of fractions of the existing gecekondu communities, were pretty religious communities,” says Emrah Altinok. He explains that some people in the gecekondu communities corresponded to mosques and were supporters of an imam. “They have the pattern of solidarity.”

Politics. “You can sense that you are in a neighbourhood where socialist politics is still effective because of the posters, the signs and the grafitis on the walls,” says Firat Genç. He mentions the presence of the police in the streets as another sign of the community being left-orientated. The state developed a strong narrative about the neighbourhoods to justify the transformation. “They pictured those neighbourhoods as a hotbed of problems and they talked of cleaning those neighbourhoods.”  

Reconstruction. Rebuilding the neighbourhood would force the residents to change their daily routines. “In these neighbourhoods the streets function as social space and the people are directly connected to the ground zero”, Emrah Altinok explains. In a gated community a street would be defined by walls and people would live on the 13th floor. “They couldn’t just pursue their, let’s say, social, economic and cultural way of living.”