Chronicle of an Urban Crime in İzmir’s Historic Neighbourhood

Damlaciktan Körfez
© Sercan Engerek

Author: Sercan Engerek

Uncertainty lingers over the future of İzmir’s Damlacık neighbourhood, a third-degree archaeological site. An urban transformation project is underway in an area demolished after the construction of a tunnel. Eight years later, Damlacık is a derelict neighbourhood, but Turkish authorities still refuse to bear responsibility for the damages caused.

When taking a shortcut to İzmir’s old bazaar, the Kemeraltı Market, from the famed hills of Eşrefpaşa, turn to a steep descending slope and Damlacık appears right in front of you. On one side of the road, you can see the club where Metin Oktay, the legendary football player known as “the crownless king,” grew up. A few blocks away from there, you cross the bakery with it its smell of fresh-baked bread… In the corner of one of the streets that run parallel to the slope lies “Tezveren Dede”, a tomb from the Ottoman era where people flock to make wishes by lighting candles every day. Damlacık, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of İzmir, never fails to impress passers-by.

Damlacık took its name from manufacturers working in the tobacco industry in the Konak district, along İzmir’s seashore: Every evening, workers climbed that steep slope to go home, sweat dripping from their foreheads. Author Yaşar Ürük argues, however, that the name takes its roots from the neighbourhood’s most distinguished sight, a creek called Mal or “Santa Veneranda”.

The creek in Damlacık takes its source from the old Silk Road, which dates back to Roman times. You can see it flowing at times, while other times, you can see the streams run dry, but even if water doesn’t continuously drip, the fountains remain in place. An 18th century mosque escaped demolition at the last moment while the “Temple of Asclepius”, which is thought to be buried under the mosque, is awaiting archaeological excavation. The old street with its cobblestone pavements is still standing. But when you look from Konak’s seashore and turn your head towards the area locals in İzmir call “Varyant”, it’s as if centuries of history never took place. As if Damlacık, with its little neighbourhoods, people, and culture, never existed...

“We lived in a building called Bereket Apartmanı. I call it a building, but it was just a two-storey house. It had a large courtyard in the middle, with the sky as a ceiling, around two or three other sections. A vine stretched upward from one corner. The Grocery Yılmaz under our home... On the other side of the street, there were embroiderers in a small workshop… Back then, grocery stores used to sell lamp oil. There would be big water cans in front of the shops. The smell of lamp oil spread would spread not only from there but from almost every single grocery store back then. And the smell of unbottled wine...”

This is how Ayşe Kilimci, a writer, reminisces life in Damlacık, where she lived between 1954 and 1961. One of the two places that still remain intact from her childhood days in the neighbourhood where she lived until the age of seven is the Ethnography Museum. The other one is the building that is currently home to the Provincial Health Directorate but was for a long time known as “Memleket Hastanesi” (Motherland Hospital).

Kilimci, whose mother is a nurse, was born in the two-storey house in the street right behind the hospital. She made her first friends in that house, started primary school there, ran and played in the streets of Damlacık...

During her years working as a specialist at the social services administration, Kilimci lived in both Istanbul and Ankara. After her retirement, she settled in the seaside town of Ayvalık. But she still can’t forget her early childhood in Izmir. She recalls her childhood days with a smile mixed with sadness: “One day, I ran away from home and went to the house of some family friends in the village of Çamlık. I remember that they were sifting flour in the middle of a huge garden. I had found that very interesting. Lucky, I stayed there watching. Otherwise, I would have gone much further away, and they wouldn’t be able to find me. The mother’s voice from the neighbouring house as she said, ‘Oh mother, that girl has escaped’ still rings in my ears… They immediately handed me back to my grandmother, who was franticly looking for me. When I think about it now, there should have been a movie theatre there, a neighbourhood theatre… A real stage, on which everybody took part without there being a protagonist or an extra actor! Years later, I realized this: Even if some of these places are destroyed, Damlacık still lives inside me with its people, its sounds and smells.”

What makes a neighbourhood unique other than its people, its love stories and the memories? Even though Kilimci lived there only when she was a little child, she still remembers her neighbours as colourful and warm people who left a mark. For instance, she talks about the “bride girl.” She used to be a seamstress. She ended up marrying a young man working in Nalıncılar Street.

“She was such a beautiful girl. Her eyes, her eyebrows, her figure… She lived just as everyone else in the neighbourhood, spoke the same language… But this lonely girl kept a secret: The cross on her neck revealed that she was Armenian when she died. I don’t know what she was worried about, but she hid her true identity until she died.” After telling the story of that woman, Kilimci adds: “I wish everyone could live freely in this country, without any constraints.”

Kilimci’s family lived in three different homes during their time in Damlacık. But being a tenant and not a landlord didn’t really matter there. Everyone would get together in front of their doorways, their gardens and during afternoon teas.

She says that many years after she moved out, she went to Damlacık to see the neighbourhood where I was born. “I looked up from the bus stop, from where you could see the entire neighbourhood… It was as if the neighbourhood didn’t exist. I thought I probably had a sunstroke. So I closed my eyes and opened them again; I looked and saw a black hole...”

Destruction started in 2013

A significant part of Damlacık has been destroyed in recent years. The first blow was struck by the construction of the Konak Tunnel. After the Council of Ministers passed an urgent expropriation decision in 2013, 39 buildings were demolished in the area known as the Sümer neighbourhood in Damlacık under which the tunnel passes. A year later, other property owners in the little neighbourhood of Namık Kemal were forced to vacate their houses. In 2015, 64 buildings in different sectors of Damlacık were demolished after a court ruled that they posed a “serious risk to life and property” based on an expert report. These residents, who were paid a fee equivalent to the market value of buildings near the expropriated area and a fee for reconstructing these buildings, migrated from the neighbourhood trying to establish a life elsewhere.

The streets in Damlacık’s Sümer neighbourhood are now erased from the map, having become a parking lot for public and private institutions in the surroundings. The loss of their homes after the tunnel construction has left deep marks in the lives of the neighbourhood’s residents. Ms Emel (74), who lived in one of the streets just right above the tunnel, said, “We couldn’t ensure the maintenance of our house as they wouldn’t give us a renovation permit; still, we never thought of selling it. If the neighbourhood wasn’t brought to this state, and the renovation permit was given, I would have liked to continue living here.”

Ms Emel came to Damlacık in 1966 after she got married. Today she not only deplores the state of Damlacık but the entire district of Konak. “Sarıkışla [a large, administrative building dating back to the mid-19th century] had just been demolished. The sea, however, was not filled with rocks and the coastal boulevard was yet to be built. The current blocks the social security institution owned didn’t exist, nor did the concrete multi-storey parking lot. When you got off the ferry at the Konak Pier, Alhambra Theatre, which now houses the Opera and National Library, was right in front of you.”

For years, they lived in a small, wooden house of three floors overlooking the sea. In that house, she raised her children, her hair turned white, experienced joy and the pain of losing her husband. One day after the tunnel construction began, they received a letter notifying them that “[their] house will be expropriated.” Ms Emel recalls that they immediately had to vacate their house.

With the money she received for the expropriation, she could buy a house under which she could find shelter, even if it was challenging. Just like herself, many of her neighbours experienced financial losses, she said. “For instance, the square meter of a house in the nearby neighbourhood of Halilrıfatpaşa was around 3,000 Turkish lira, whereas the amount given to us was just 1,000 lira per square meter. The square meter of the YKM area and its surroundings, also just two minutes away from our former house, was 18,000 lira back then. Since our houses were old, they didn’t have a value, but the parcel was valuable because of its location. Since our house was expropriated due to a mistake, as it was badly damaged, I would have wished that its true value would be compensated.”

Residents can’t renovate their house

Which street you chose to walk down in Damlacık, now only silence reigns. People who can barely make a living are aggrieved for this void in their life, for being left among the ruins… It is difficult to make amends for the consequences the tunnel project had.

Naim Yazıcı, a retired police officer who lives with his 96-year-old mother and older sister in Damlacık’s Namık Kemal neighbourhood, has tried to make his voice heard by the authorities for the last seven years. He hasn’t applied to any administrative institution, and there are no journalists left in İzmir to whom he didn’t talk.

Yazıcı’s house was found to be moderately damaged in 2015. He says that the house they live in was built in 1955. Like other buildings in the area, it was made much before construction engineering, and earthquake regulations were in the order of the day. When the heavily damaged buildings in the parcels right behind their house were demolished, the foundations of their house began to take in water:

“They haphazardly poured some concrete on the area where the parcels of the demolished houses were located, but it didn’t improve the situation. There is a seven-meter difference in elevation between the two streets. As a result, all the rainwater absorbed by the soil located up there pours down to our building. The foundation of the house is taking in water. They say that earthquakes don’t kill; it’s the buildings that do. We are concerned about our safety here.

If our house gets worse and comes to the point of collapsing, we can’t rebuild without merging our parcel with the parcel next to us.”

Damlacık has a status of a third-degree archaeological site. According to the revised development plan for the conservation of the area comprising Damlacık – known as Kemeraltı Phase 1 – the new buildings that will be constructed will have no more than two floors. Provided that parcels between 40 and 80 square meters in size are merged, property owners can choose to get a “residence optional hostel project.” However, if historical artefacts are found during construction, there is a high probability of expropriation of the parcel. This is why the former residents have never stepped into the neighbourhood again: Even though the “cost of rebuilding” of their demolished houses was paid as part of the compensation, they wanted to avoid future problems.

I asked both the Izmir Metropolitan Municipality (IMM) and the municipality of the Konak district if there was an urban transformation or renewal plan involving Damlacık. In their written response, the provincial and district municipalities assured that constructions in the district were in line with the said revised development and the Cultural Heritage Conservation Regional Board’s decisions.

“Historical transformation project” is unlikely a solution

Many of the buildings in Damlacık and its surroundings dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and registered as cultural assets either collapsed due to neglect or are on the verge of collapsing, with looted doors and windows. Among those, 11 are located in the area expropriated for the tunnel construction. If private property without a cultural value was expropriated, the ownership of the buildings registered assets along the border of the expropriated area passed to the General Directorate of Highways.

A “restoration and landscaping project” was launched in the expropriated area, which was supposed to be implemented in 2021. If the project, the details of which are hidden, sees the day, the registered buildings that were demolished will be “restored.” The institution responsible for the task, the Investment Monitoring and Coordination Directorate at the Governor’s Office of İzmir, said, answering my questions that the project labelled as “historical transformation” is still at the tender stage.

However, the said institution didn’t give any information about who will manage the buildings registered as cultural assets – planned to be used as hotels, hostels, cafés, and restaurants after being restored – once rebuilt and what kind of economic model would be put in place. Neighbourhood residents I spoke to and whose houses were expropriated have said that according to the agreement signed with the General Directorate of Highways during the expropriation process, no commercial profit can be sought at the expropriated area.

Yazıcı, who has devoted his life to Damlacık, believes that restoration and landscaping projects alone cannot solve the neighbourhood’s problems. The historical area formed the silhouette of the entire Konak district, Yazıcı said. “Damlacık was neglected for years. The issue is not merely 11 registered buildings. How will the 12th, the 13th, or the 14th buildings registered as cultural assets be saved from demolition? For years, words have been said that the expropriated area will be returned to İzmir. I don’t know how they intend to do it, but what will happen to the rest of Damlacık?”

The Highway Authority rejects responsibility eight years later

Why was the historical texture of Damlacık sacrificed for a tunnel construction? Why did the area remain derelict for so many years? The General Directorate of Highway, responsible for the construction of the Konak Tunnel – which was among the “35 projects” promised for İzmir by Binali Yıldırım, the former Transportation Minister from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who also ran for mayorship in İzmir in the 2014 local elections – answered the questions we submitted using the Law on the Right of Information. In its written response dated 26 July 2021, some eight years after the first expropriation, the institution said: “Damages occurred in some buildings located on the tunnel’s route, without there being any fault of the contractor nor the administration.”

The tunnel’s construction began on 24 September 2011 by the contractor companies, authorized by the General Directorate of Highway without a tendering process. Professional chambers and the Konak Municipality sued the project because obligations stemming from the archaeological site status of the area had been ignored. They said that the project shouldn’t have been considered exempt from an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and could constitute a geological hazard. Binali Yıldırım, the then minister of transport, said the project would be completed “no matter it is an archaeological site.” After this statement made by Yıldırım, the tunnel’s construction continued until the tunnel was eventually opened to vehicular traffic in 2015. Not even a pedestrian overpass was built.

“White collar crimes”

The Konak Tunnel, which affects the entire future of the historic neighbourhood, was considered as a “crime against the city” in the “Izmir City Crimes Map” published by the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) in 2019.

So, what is a crime against the city? City planner Zeynep Yıldırım argues that these are defined as “white collar crimes.” “The then minister Binali Yıldırım was at the time constantly proposing new projects for İzmir. Most of those were transportation projects. He used to say, ‘you can’t take people’s right to transportation away.’ By doing so made İzmir locals’ victimized.’ People then internalized [the notion of being a victim]. These are the white-collar crimes committed by people in power who try to establish their authority through a hegemonic language. They are not crimes that can be committed by some ordinary passers-by.”

The unrest in Damlacık, which started with the tunnel construction, has only increased since residents were left among the ruins for years. The neighbourhood today looks like a constant construction site. Safety problems are rampant, and buildings in danger of collapse are part of the landscape.

Professor Dalya Hazar-Kalonya, a lecturer at the Pamukkale University’s City and Regional Planning Department in the nearby city of Denizli, pointed out that the tunnel under Damlacık was built before the regional committee responsible for the conservation of cultural heritage finished reviewing the construction plan and criticized officials for not waiting for the decision.

Hazar-Kalonya, also notes that after no significant work was carried out for years in Damlacık, the municipality launched a “restoration and landscaping project” out of the blue. She argues that this results from a “conscious process to dilapidate the neighbourhood.” According to Hazar-Kalonya, it is noteworthy that the same plan intends to preserve both Damlacık and the nearby historic Kemeraltı area. “[Officials] use these minor pinpoint changes to gentrify these places by waiting for buildings to crumble, depreciating the properties, and hence opening the door for their sale.”

The concept of “nobilitation” or “gentrification,” which was first used by sociologist Ruth Glass, is defined as the appropriation of neighbourhoods in city centres hosting low-income residents and the working class by the middle and upper classes. Hazar-Kalonya explained that gentrification might as well solve safety problems in the area as it might displace the neighbourhood’s long-time residents. When that is the case, she said, the profit generated from gentrification can rarely be channelled back to be used for the public interest.

“[Officials] tend to renovate a few buildings through projects and thereby change the function of the buildings. For example, they will turn a residence into a tourism area open it for commercial operation. This will lead the surroundings and the socio-cultural environment to change,” Hazal-Kolonya said. She said that Damlacık is a very prized location in İzmir, not only due to its historical heritage but mainly because it is set on a hill overlooking the sea. “Therefore, the profit potential is boosting the demand. And although the management of the company named TARKEM, which is conducting the urban transformation project in Damlacık, appears to be affiliated with the local administration, it remains an organization motivated by profit. I don’t want to imply that this was the case, but residents in Damlacık might have been left helpless all these years because of a high demand to generate profit in the area until they eventually were forced to leave.”

Cemetery removed a century ago

During the excavations for the construction of the tunnel in 2013, a total of 336 Jewish tombstones and more than 900 human bones were discovered around the area surrounding the Ethnography Museum.

Based on an old map of the cemetery – which stood open until the sanitary regulation of 1868 – historian Siren Bora said that the cemetery’s land, around 242 acres in 1842, fell to 115 acres after it was opened for development.

Bora said there were land encroachments after the Ottoman-Russian Wars (1877-1878) when the local administration constructed housing for immigrants from the Balkans and Greece (muhacir) settled Izmir. In 1907, the Jewish community donated part of the cemetery’s land to the Gureba-i Müslimin Hospital (named Memleket or Motherland Hospital in the Republican era), which opened in 1851.

In 1919, the Greek Forces occupying İzmir continued construction in the cemetery’s land, which accelerated after 1914 until deciding to officially transfer the graves in the cemetery in 1921. The Jewish community was unable to prevent the transfer.  

Bora said that the removal of tombs in the Jewish Cemetery continued until 1926. This land today includes the Ethnography Museum, the Archeology Museum, Karataş High School – İzmir’s first high school for girls - the Selimiye Mosque and Sarıkamış Primary School. All the bones excavated in the tunnel construction back in 2013 have been transferred to the Jewish Cemetery in Gürçeşme.