"Liberated neighborhoods": reconstructing leftist activism in the urban periphery
This article addresses the phenomenon of what is known as ‘liberated territory’1 in recent Turkish history (the second half of the 1970s), during which leftist activists2 entered the urban periphery for ideological purposes. Using quotations from the interviews with former leftist activists and gecekondu3 residents4 in Ankara and İzmir,5 I aim to reconstruct the past from the memories6 of my respondents, revealing the experience of leftist presence in the gecekondu as it is remembered. I focus on the experiences in gecekondu neighborhoods as leftist activists experimented, on the one hand, with transforming the urban periphery to provide housing for the poor, and, on the other hand, with the ideological training and mobilization of their inhabitants, which was contested by state authorities and towards the end by the ultranationalists. Thus, it involved violence, leftist militants fighting with the oppositional ultranationalist groups as well as with the state forces when the latter attempted to intervene in the neighborhood and to demolish the houses, with whom negotiations could be carried out otherwise. I argue, first, that leftist groups’ experimenting with the gecekondu was a decentralized endeavor led by spontaneous decisions rather than a centrally planned one, showing variations in different contexts. Secondly, it was not an inclusive project despite the original aim, mainly Alevis7 embracing and religious Sunnis opposing it. Thirdly, it was a topdown ideological project of “enlightening” the urban poor, yet in the practice of constructing houses and infrastructure, and providing services and help to gecekondu dwellers, it was a participatory process. And fourthly, although leftist groups moved into the urban periphery to bring class consciousness, they, nonetheless, became new actors in transforming peripheral land, and as such they acted against the commodification of land, prioritizing the use value against the exchange value. Accordingly, moving beyond the simplistic view of the status quo that leftist presence in gecekondu areas disrupted the social order, I show the transformative role of the left in the urban periphery, intervening in the unequal power dynamics of urban informality, which instigated violence.