ISTANBUL - On the eve of the traditional Kirkpinar oil wrestling competition, to be held in its 652nd year in the Edirne province in western Turkey, attention was turning to the “pehlivans,” as the wrestlers are called.
The pehlivans hailing from Istanbul have arrived in Edirne for the July 5-7 competition, but the contingent from Turkey's largest city will not be among the favorites.
The capitals of oil wrestling instead are Antalya, Karamursel, Samsun and the cities of the Thrace area. But it wasn't always this way: Istanbul was the center of the sport in Ottoman times, and Kirkpinar -- which was first staged in 1346 -- was just one of many tournaments held throughout the empire.
The top Ottoman-era pehlivans were trained and boarded at special lodges dedicated to the sport. According to well-known travel books by Evliya Celebi, there were two major lodges -- respectively in the Zeyrek and the Sishane neighborhoods of Istanbul.
The lodge at Zeyrek was a training ground in which promising youth from all over the empire were gathered and trained. The pehlivans had a special Turkish bath of their own at Kasimpasa, and were trained at the slippery art on the lodge's oiled marble floors.
Oil wrestling is considered Turkey's national sport, and resembles Olympic-style competition except that it takes place on open fields, matches can last more than 30 minutes, competitors wear long leather pants -- and of course, the pehlivan are lathered with oil that makes every attempted grip all that much more difficult. (see video below)
All dried up
There are no pehlivan lodges in Istanbul today, nor are there many grounds to even practice oil wrestling. There is a field in Kagithane on the European side of the city and another on the Asian side -- the Samandira Wrestling Field, which was opened by Sancaktepe Mayor Ismail Erdem. The mayor is also the sponsor of the annual Sancaktepe Oil Wrestling event, which also serves as the qualifying matches for Kirkpinar.
It should be noted that the pehlivans in Turkey do not have a place to train during winter, except for Antalya and Karamursel where large investments are made in oil wrestling. Istanbul is among the cities with no winter facilities, meaning that the pehlivans are forced to spend the winter focused only on conditioning and strength practices at indoor facilities on Western Olympic-style wrestling. They return to wrestle on the grass when the spring comes.
Famous names of the oil wrestling world in Turkey train at Sancaktepe. Among them is Serhat Balci, the captain of the national team of freesytle wrestling who has started oil wrestling this year. Daily practices last about two hours, where the pehlivans wrestle non-stop, constantly changing partners and getting tips and tricks from coaches.
Olive vs. sunflower oil
Oil wrestling uses olive oil, which does not burn the eyes and can be easily removed from the skin once it's been in contact with sweat. In some places, pehlivans use sunflower seed oil, which is less expensive.
In Istanbul, it's olive oil on the wrestlers' body, with sunflower seed oil used only to oil their kispets, the special, traditional pants worn while wrestling. The kispet has a tight waistline, and is not easy to put on when oiled. You first oil the inside of the kispet, then the crouch area, than the hip area in that order. It gets easier with time but beginners always have a hard time at first. The first try may even last up to 10 minutes without a little help from others.
Most pehlivans have a second job. Some in Istanbul are gym teachers, security guards, businessmen, students. There is even a pharmacist. But all are dedicated to the sport.
Taking the oil off from the skin is not hard if you have soap. But you must also find water at the wrestling site. Some pehlivans remember having to take baths in rivers, mosques, with water brought in bottles, or next to a fire truck... and one time, even in a morgue.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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