550-year-old community and Unesco battle city's blueprint for urban renewal

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A lifetime of memories is wrapped up inside the rickety wooden house that Necati Celik, 76, has called home since he was five. It is where he lived with his wife and brought up his children.

But Celik is unlikely to fulfil his wish of seeing out the rest of his days tending his flowers outside the 100-year-old listed building - a classic late Ottoman structure in Sulukule, Istanbul. He cannot afford the extensive renovations that local officials are demanding as part of a controversial renewal scheme for the historic district, which borders the city's 5th-century walls and is home to Turkey's oldest Roma community.

"The municipality says we have no option but to agree to sell otherwise they will expropriate the property and put the money in the bank, giving it to us in instalments," he said. "All my family were here and I want to die here. I don't want to transfer it to the authorities but the mayor keeps saying, it's up to you to make a deal with us."

Celik's plight is shared by most of Sulukule's 3,400 impoverished residents, who are being forced out under a gentrification project conceived as part of Istanbul's preparations for becoming the European city of culture in 2010. Most of the district's houses are earmarked for demolition and many long-term residents have already left. City officials deem the work essential to transform a district blighted by drugs, prostitution, unemployment and illiteracy. But critics of the project say it threatens the survival of a Roma population that is thought to have been in Sulukule since the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, the sultan who captured Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, from the Byzantines in 1453.

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