Ecevit Çalışkan’s family home has become a landmark in Yeldeğirmeni, a coastal neighbourhood on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. The walls of the crumbling five-storey house are completely covered in stuffed toys, and passers-by often stop to look or take photos. Çalışkan, meanwhile, is known locally for the parties he throws for his neighbours. 

Çalışkan and his family don’t own the building or pay rent: they are squatters. The story of how they ended up there also illustrates a familiar tale of how Istanbul’s working-class neighbourhoods are being transformed by gentrification. 

Born in Yeldeğirmeni in 1974, Çalışkan left school at 11 to work in a textile market – one reason he loves toys, he says, is that he never had any as a child. He stayed in the job for more than 20 years, leaving around the time of the anti-government demonstrations that swept Turkey in 2013. Those protests were a catalyst for change in Yeldeğirmeni: artists, students and intellectuals who had previously congregated on Istanbul’s European shore began to move into the surrounding district of Kadıköy. 

Photo 4: Ecevit Çalışkan (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

In Yeldeğirmeni itself, as more established residents moved out, cafes, social centres and theatres moved in. Some activists began to set up squats in dilapidated or abandoned buildings. One such squat, since evicted, was the Don Quixote social centre where people could find a place to sleep or take part in cultural activities ranging from drama to ceramics. 

With the change in population, Çalışkan saw an opportunity. He bought himself a push cart and started a furniture removal service. Beds, cupboards, washing machines, fridges, washers – these became his livelihood. 

Around the same time, Çalışkan and his family were forced out of their previous home after a dispute with the landlord. 

“A friend who’s now my neighbour told me, ‘There’s an empty house here. Come and crash, why be left out on the street?’” said Çalışkan. “And before I knew it, I moved into the squat.” 

Photo 3: Ecevit Çalışkan (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

Çalışkan said that when he arrived, the home – an old townhouse that had fallen into disrepair – was used by drug addicts. 

“First I had to get them out,” he said. “Then I completely cleaned the building, painted it, did some small repairs and we moved in.” 

Then came the toys. Çalışkan said the idea came to him one day when he was moving house for a client with a lot of possessions and asked if he could take one of their toys, a stuffed Smurf. Çalışkan hung it on the front wall of his house. Next, a friend sent him a large teddy bear from abroad with a note that read, “Will you put this one on the balcony?” From then on, he continued to collect toys and display them outside, occasionally giving them away as gifts. 

Photo 5: Istanbul’s ‘toy house’ (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

Çalışkan told Inside Turkey that he had never been able to find the true owner of the house, which means he cannot get an electricity supply registered in his name, and has to use an illegal line. That results in fines, which he pays off through his removals work, and by selling second-hand furniture he finds on the street. The coronavirus pandemic has caused a temporary dip in business, he said, but work is starting to pick up again as the lockdown restrictions are lifted. 

While the former Don Quixote squat in Yeldeğirmeni is now a coffee bar, Çalışkan’s home cannot be officially renovated because of the building’s architectural significance. Having resisted several fraudulent attempts to claim ownership, Çalışkan said he would be happy to return the house to its true owner if they ever resurfaced. 

“This house is a historical monument and I protect it. If I didn’t take care of it, it would fall apart,” he said. “If there is a real owner of the house and they showed up, I would be more than happy to turn over the keys. Not that there are keys to the house. Just turn the door knob and walk in. That’s how we live.” 

Often, Çalışkan holds parties for his neighbours in front of the house. In June 2019 he organised a party to celebrate the victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu, a candidate from the opposition CHP party, in the Istanbul mayoral election. 

“That night me and my wife danced the halay [a traditional dance],” a neighbour who had supported the rival AKP candidate told him. “You brought all these people together here and gave them such a beautiful energy.”

Barbaros Kahraman, a friend and neighbour since childhood, said that without Çalışkan, the house would fall apart. 

“Drug addicts burned this house down,” he said, pointing to the building next door. “If Ecevit didn’t look after the house, the same thing would have happened here.” 

Photo 9: Ecevit Çalışkan’s childhood friend and neighbor Barbaros Kahraman (Credit: Aylin Kaplan)

Sultan Aksu, a local councillor, said that it was misleading to describe the home as a squat, given the term’s negative connotations. 

“There are empty buildings that aren’t being used,” she said. “On the other hand, you have people who need a place to stay. Why wouldn’t they live there?”

Aksu said that she would be ready to defend Çalışkan and his family against any eviction attempt. 

“They are our neighbours, we have to look after them,” she continued. “Ecevit is a man who never lost his inner child. He brings colour to the neighbourhood.”