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    Subjective realities in divided Nicosia

    By Camila Cocina Varas, on 13 December 2017

    As part of the DPU summerLab workshop series, the workshop “Inhabiting Edges” took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, during September 2017. The workshop was led by Camila Cociña and Ricardo Martén (DPU) and Silvia Covarino (Girne American University), and aimed to explore and critically understand the history and politics of Cyprus’ borders, navigating the complexities of the last divided capital city in Europe. In this series of two blogs, Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon -participants of the workshop- reflect on subjective realities, developmental disparities, and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia.

    Part 1 can be viewed here.

    By Bethania Soriano and Sharon Yavo Yalon

    This post draws from our DPU SummerLab experience in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, which is considered the last divided city in Europe.

    The SummerLab provided the opportunity to challenge preconceived notions of the oversimplified reality that centres around a dichotomised conflict pitting Greek-Cypriot against Turkish-Cypriot. By engaging with the materiality of the city and its social networks, we attempted to uncover nuances and complexities in a context of deep-seated division, territorial and politico-ideological contestation. We were interested in framing division and its impact from the standpoint of the actors that cross Nicosia’s visible and invisible thresholds in an attempt to meet the ‘other’, forming unlikely allegiances to build a sense of identity that bridges fault lines in their landscape. Thus, we conducted fieldwork, collecting different perceptions on belonging and uncovering particularly situated narratives.

    Exploring both sides of the divided city, we recognised that the agents who productively engage with difference were mostly young artists, not only from the expected majoritarian ethnic groups, but from an international expatriate community that congregate in Cyprus. As a young musician told us:

    “My father is Cypriot; I grew up in Colombia, Chicago and then in Cyprus.

    People from all over the world live here. This is Cyprus – we are cluster-f***ed.” 1

    Thus, we discovered shared spaces of ‘encounter’ such as the two twinned cafes, Hoi Polloi in the north, and Kala Kathoumena in the south, as the gathering places of the artistic community on each side of the buffer zone – areas emblematic of tolerance and sought-after common ground. The informal interviews conducted in these spaces highlighted, in the evocative and charged language used by the interviewees, the importance of capturing voices beyond the well-known register – those whose stories will not feature as officially promoted, sanctioned narratives.

    Location of café’s and interviewees routes showing southerners crossing to the north and vice versa.

    When asked to comment on the prevailing mentalities from people in the north and south, a young British-Filipino singer articulated her thoughts in a candid way, disconcerting in its lyrical tone:

    “… the south is a ‘rock’, whereas the north is like ‘air’.

    In the north people are chaotic, relaxed, middle-eastern… when we play, they dance and smile back at you. In the south people are serious and philosophical, more reserved and conservative… and really scarred by what happened.” 2

    Reflecting on the young woman’s comments, the south is portrayed anchored in the solidity and rigidity of the perceptions and views of its inhabitants; in the reaffirming and reinforcing of memories and official narratives of occupation and suffered injuries.

    “In the cover of all school notebooks, there are these slogans – ‘Do not forget’. The school books are all branded, so we are constantly reminded…” 3

    Whereas in the north, the rarefied and ephemeral re-imaginings of identity and belonging are expressed in the ways people wish to highlight and confront narratives of prejudice:

    “People from the south think in the north you can get raped… they [Turkish-Cypriots] will steal your children.” 4

    Motivated by the need for political survival against the longstanding embargo and isolation from the international community, many Turkish-Cypriots are interested in carving a sense of collective Cypriot identity that includes southerners. Even if that involves selective forgetting of past injuries, some are choosing to ‘draw a breath of fresh air’ in order to survive:

    “…it is important to move from a narrative of  ‘This is who we are’, to a narrative of ‘We do not know who we will become’… ” 5

    However, across Nicosia diverse voices can be heard. Alongside few Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots who dared to venture beyond rigid confines and shed some of the values of their communities, others were conflicted:

    “Now I realise that I only had half a childhood – I only met half the people I could have… only made half the friends… only had half the experiences.” 6

    “I tried to cross with my friend and we walked all the way… but when my friend saw Ataturk [statues] and all the [Turkish] flags he got scared and turned back.” 7

    “Before the [Ledras Street] crossing, people never thought the south was so ‘close’ – there was an initial shock; then the shock of all the similarities!” 8

    Hoi Polloi in the north, and Kala Kathoumena in the south.

    In conclusion, the quotes reproduced above testify to the individuals’ ingenious capacities to articulate, negotiate, ascribe meaning and ultimately either normalise or contest the ‘everyday’. Their struggles for belonging co-exist with the need to develop and affirm an identity, breaking away from any restrictive ‘cluster’ to reclaim their place in the city. Whilst examining Nicosia’s overlapping, subjective realities, we learned that identity is not necessarily bound by place, but it is relational and situated – it can only be conceived in regard to the material reality of place and its sustaining social networks. Identity is also fluid and in constant transformation.

     

    1.  Young Colombian-Cypriot man who grew up in the United States and Cyprus; artist.
    2.  Young British-Filipino woman, in Cyprus for the past 17 years; living in south Nicosia and working as an artist and singer in north Nicosia.
    3.  Young Greek-Cypriot aspiring artist, living in the south and frequenting the artists’ cafés in north Nicosia.
    4.  Turkish-Cypriot male student, commuting from Kyrenia/ Girne into north Nicosia.
    5.  Dean of Architecture, Design & Fine Arts at Girne American University, Assoc. Prof Dr Mehmet Adil,

    addressing participants of the SummerLab.

    6 and 7.  Young Greek-Cypriot man, living in south Nicosia and often visiting the north side.

    1. Mayor of North Nicosia, Mehmet Harmancı, addressing participants of the SummerLab.

     

    Bethania Soriano is an independent researcher based in London, particularly focused on the politics of contested spaces – the ways in which people negotiate the environments they inhabit, adapting, reclaiming and ultimately shaping space by virtue of their everyday practices. She studies areas with long-established ‘geographies of difference’, in contexts of conflict transformation, and where minorities strive for spatial justice and social inclusion.

    Bethania trained as an Architect and Urban Designer in Southern Brazil and holds an MSc in City Design and Social Science with distinction, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

     

    Sharon Yavo Yalon is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, based in Haifa. Her research enfolds the linkage between art and urbanism and the manner in which local identity, spatial (in)justice and social (ex-in)clusion are forged or  deconstructed by artistic activity in cities. More specifically, she focuses on artistic interventions in contested cities and the ways in which they affect and are affected by urban segregation patterns and boundaries. Sharon is a practicing architect and artist, graduated summa cum laude BA and MSc in Architecture and Town Planning from the Technion IIT.

    Developmental disparities and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia

    By Camila Cocina Varas, on 12 December 2017

    As part of the DPU summerLab workshop series, the workshop “Inhabiting Edges” took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, during September 2017. The workshop was led by Camila Cociña and Ricardo Martén (DPU) and Silvia Covarino (Girne American University), and aimed to explore and critically understand the history and politics of Cyprus’ borders, navigating the complexities of the last divided capital city in Europe. In this series of two blogs, Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon -participants of the workshop- reflect on subjective realities, developmental disparities, and regeneration processes in divided Nicosia.

     

    By Bethania Soriano and Sharon Ayalon

    “Nicosia is a city where you cross not only into a different country but into a different time zone.” 1

    In this second post, we comment on Cyprus’ geostrategic position and its partition, appropriating of the metaphorical language used by the interviewees. Using the “rock and air” allegories, we frame our observations of disparities in development levels on each side of the buffer zone.

    Both sides of Ledras Street crossing

     

    On the one hand, south Cyprus can be understood as a “rock” in its solid, consolidated position on the international stage, benefiting from direct access to the European Union and a reliable network of financial support. There are better-developed physical and institutional infrastructures in the south, from public transport and organised rubbish collection, to the presence of international banks, companies and organisations. Additionally, the south can be contextualised as being strongly affected by the ‘telluric’ forces of capitalism. Patent signs of gentrification can be seen, where hip areas shed their local shops in favour of commercially branded streets, tagged with reproaching graffiti and street art.

    In the south, another consequence of rapid development is the large influx of economic migrants predominantly from Southeast Asia. Thus, new, vibrant migrant communities such as Filipinos, live side-by-side with long-established minorities such as Maronite, Armenians, etc. They occupy mostly run-down, city centre areas where accommodation is cheaper.

    The north on the other hand, can be seen as “air” since its existence as an independent state is not internationally recognised but by neighbouring Turkey. Thus, the future of the “occupied area”, circa 36.2% of the island, is ‘up in the air’, in a limbo. Furthermore, the north is under international embargo, in a vacuum of investment in infrastructure, with the exception of direct financial aid from Turkey and localised cash injections from independent, foreign investors in tourism.

    North Cyprus experiences similar development processes to the south, albeit at a slower pace. Its commercial streets are still lined with local shops, except for Turkish companies. The street markets selling clothing and sportswear counterfeits are a reflection of the same commercial trends gripping the south, where people emulate patterns of ‘western affluence’ to display status. Similarly, the large presence of economic migrants is noticeable, although in the north these are predominantly Turkish, unskilled seasonal labourers, housed in neglected, inner-city areas.

    The differentiating phenomenon registered in the ‘rarefied’ north, extending an economic lifeline and changing the demographic profile of the area, is the proliferation of foreign, Higher Education institutions, which vie to attract international students from the Middle East and African countries. The student, transient presence however, is said to nearly double the city’s population, putting extra pressure on services and ailing infrastructures.

    These two parallel realities are becoming more disparate, with the south developing rapidly and losing its uniqueness faster. The country seems to be at a crucial moment – if it continues growing apart at this rate, the discrepancy in development levels will be hard to match, and true unification, whether a desired political project, may not be a possible outcome for decades.

    Commercial streets on both sides of the border.

     

    “If you ask me, more hipsters – that is what we need” 2

    Returning to the level of the city, another common trend in the revitalisation of rundown areas observed in Nicosia is culture-led urban regeneration. This strategy has gained momentum since the advancement of Richard Florida’s “creative city” theory and the publication of numerous studies highlighting art’s contribution to urban success, social change, people’s sense of belonging and economic growth. Since this model has proven problematic in a variety of contexts, it must also be addressed in the case of Nicosia, where the agents of transformation were mostly young artists engaging with bottom-up urban interventions.

    Artistic interventions on both sides of Nicosia.

     

    During interviews, architects and city planners described the ‘soft seeds’ of artistic intervention, mentioning initiatives such as the street-art festival. They highlighted the intrinsic relationship between art and the city – often, in deteriorating urban spaces artists see themselves as ‘shamans’ fixing problems with collaborative and participatory art. In Nicosia, the notion of the “last divided city in Europe” is a source of inspiration to prolific artists, as evidenced by ubiquitous graffiti, uncommissioned murals and installations. Moreover, these artistic manifestations are potent political statements – the record of personal and collective narratives, otherwise unacknowledged, and a direct reflection of issues dominating social imaginaries. Unfortunately, there is a danger to art being identified as something to be consumed and commodified. Then, bottom-up, hipster-led city activation can be adopted by developers and municipalities and turned into top-down, culture-led urban renewal projects.

    Over the years, criticism of the transformation of art into cultural capital, a tool of symbolic economy or a mean for marketing and branding, has shown that investment in art rarely trickles down or triggers the wheels of economy as expected. In fact, it is more likely for veteran residents to become the main victims of these strategies, which escalate gentrification, prompt social exclusion and displacement. In sum, it is necessary to interrogate the role of art in attracting investment; whose art; how much art; and what kind of development is being promoted.

    In conclusion, this split island country is embedded in a broader context; needing international recognition, substantial and sustained investment from external actors. As such, it has to be understood in the interplay between political zones of influence and corresponding financing streams, where the strength (or fragility) of foreign allegiances can produce great disparities in development levels. We leave Cyprus, wondering how could regeneration processes, often initiated by the creativity of local actors and later propelled by external forces, allow for dissonant voices in contested spaces to be heard but not co-opted for political or economic gains.

     

    1.  Mayor of North Nicosia, Mehmet Harmancı, addressing participants of the SummerLab.
    2. Young female, freelance architect.

     

    Bethania Soriano is an independent researcher based in London, particularly focused on the politics of contested spaces – the ways in which people negotiate the environments they inhabit, adapting, reclaiming and ultimately shaping space by virtue of their everyday practices. She studies areas with long-established ‘geographies of difference’, in contexts of conflict transformation, and where minorities strive for spatial justice and social inclusion.

    Bethania trained as an Architect and Urban Designer in Southern Brazil and holds an MSc in City Design and Social Science with distinction, from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

    Sharon Yavo Yalon is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, based in Haifa. Her research enfolds the linkage between art and urbanism and the manner in which local identity, spatial (in)justice and social (ex-in)clusion are forged or  deconstructed by artistic activity in cities. More specifically, she focuses on artistic interventions in contested cities and the ways in which they affect and are affected by urban segregation patterns and boundaries. Sharon is a practicing architect and artist, graduated summa cum laude BA and MSc in Architecture and Town Planning from the Technion IIT.