In Istanbul, Turkey housing costs are high. So people looked on with some anticipation as officials set out to rehabilitate a dangerous rundown neighborhood just inside the city's walls. But this urban renewal project is running into opposition from the neighborhood's residents, many of them Roma, the long despised and disenfranchised minority also known as gypsies.

Peter Kenyon has this letter from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: When a taxi driver was told we wanted to go to the Sulukule neighborhood, tucked along the Byzantine walls in a neglected corner of the city, he gave a grunt. Twenty-five years driving a cab and he'd never set foot in Sulukule. Too many wild dogs, vagrants, too many gypsies.

But these days, the Roma of Sulukule aren't neglected. The municipality's paying quite a bit of attention to them, and they don't like it one bit. Just a few blocks away from Istanbul's modern offices and shops, parts of Sulukule resemble nothing so much as the Gaza Strip. Metal rebar skeletons snake into the air amid the rubble of destroyed houses. In this case, the destruction was done in the name of urban renewal, but the Roma who live here don't want to move. And on this day, April 8th, World Roma Day, they staked out an intersection to protest and to party.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: The Roma are no strangers to persecution. Ever since they began their odyssey from the Indian subcontinent two-and-a-half millennia ago, they've been feared and demonized. In Biblical times, some said it was Roma blacksmiths who forged the nails that crucified Jesus of Nazareth. In the Middle Ages, Christian witch hunts also targeted the Roma. Later, European emperors narrowed the focus and simply held gypsy hunts. The Romani slavery wasn't abolished until the mid-19th century. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Roma left India in the 11th century, about one millennium ago (not two and a half).]

The current case does not belong in that category. The authorities are not driving the Roma of Sulukule out into the streets. In fact, the city built decent low-income housing for them, and bussed them out to their new location on the outskirts of Istanbul.

Anatia Ozan(ph), with an activist group trying to preserve this Romani neighborhood, says the city didn't think it through. The new places are too expensive, so is the food and health care. Many people quickly fell into debt. In effect, Ozan says, the city stripped these people of their natural network of friends and family.

Ms. ANATIA OZAN (Activist): (Through translator) Really, they're a minority that's been on the fringes for a very long time. And living together they've developed ways of supporting each other. And when you cut up the neighborhood, what you're really doing is leaving them defenseless to not be able to hold on.

KENYON: A woman of uncertain age moves in front of the musicians and begins to dance, her smile hinting at memories of better days. Shuklu Henduk(ph), a Roma activist, has been pressing the government to make Sulukule an attractive destination for Turks and visitors who want to enjoy Romani culture. He says the government will find it's not as easy as it once was to push the Roma people around.

Mr. SHUKLU HENDUK (Activist): (Through translator) I told the mayor many times, this is the only place where Roma culture lives. We want them to raise the living standards right here so people can come to enjoy Roma music. Otherwise, we'll demand an archeological dig, which will prevent new construction here.

KENYON: The municipality has been at this project for some three years now, however, and shows no sign of giving up. For now the standoff continues.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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