A Turkish dissident who fled his homeland in 1991 is now fighting a political battle in New Haven’s Quinnipiac Meadows neighborhood: to name a streetcorner after an icon of secularism.
Feray Gokcek is seeking to dedicate the corner of Scarboro Street, a tiny block with only one address, and Middletown Avenue, a central thoroughfare, to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey.
Gokcek, a vegetable wholesaler and self-described “freedom fighter,” said a signpost to Ataturk, who’s revered for setting up a secular constitution in the Muslim nation, would send a message 5,000 miles abroad to his former countrymen — and a few blocks away to a religious community — about the separation of mosque and state at a time when an Islamist leader has reversed that legacy.
However, in democratic New Haven, Gokcek needs to demonstrate that neighbors support his idea. As a first step, he has submitted a petition to the Board of Alders. It initially asked for the board to rename the entire street; he crossed that out and asked instead to name just the corner. “If you could grant our wish, we will be very grateful as a Turkish/American community,” Gokcek wrote.
The petition had seven signatures: those of three neighbors and four members of the Ataturk Union of USA, which holds annual events in front of a 13-foot statute of the former president in Gokcek’s backyard.
That didn’t yet meet the requirements of the city’s ordinances, members of the City Plan Commission decided in offering an advisory report to the Board of Alders.
Along with a site plan of the street’s features and proposed wording for the sign, Gokcek’s petition needs signatures from at least 250 city residents. Two-thirds of those are supposed to be from the neighborhood. But the ordinance doesn’t define any geographic limits, said planning staffer Ted Stevens. At the very least, “Two of these addresses [on or abutting Scarboro Street] are represented by the signatures, but there are a number of other residential properties in close proximity to Scarboro Street, none of whom signed the petition,” a report to the commissioners noted.
Adam Marchand, a planning commissioner and Westville alder, said those rules are important to follow because the names are supposed to resonate “well beyond a particular corner.” Getting all those signatures ensures that an honoree has “enough recognition in the community.”
Gokcek said he didn’t know that those were the rules. Starting to count off supporters on his fingers, he added that it would be “no problem” getting signatures. (Readers can email him here to add their names.) “I’ll put maybe 550.”
The opposition in the neighborhood, Gokcek anticipated, could come from fellow Turks erecting a new mosque, featuring contested 81-foot high minarets, a few blocks away from the proposed site.
Most of the mosque’s members are from Giresun, Gokcek’s hometown too, a province on the Black Sea where the country’s hazelnuts mainly come from. But Gokcek holds a dark view of his neighbors, describing them as fanatics with “religion brain” — a condition that he says is “worse than drugs” for the way it distorts reality.
He said he can picture the mosque’s worshippers growling in anger at Ataturk’s name, “screaming every day” as they passed the corner on the way to services. As the leftist son of a lawyer, a nonobservant Muslim who handled contract disputes, Gokcek remains bitter about the times he was arrested for agitating against an Islamist takeover in Turkey.
“I want to send a message from the democratic side,” he said. “Right now, Turkey needs help for democracy” under threat by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current president. He associates the mosque with support for the authoritarianism imposed by Erdogan, who has consolidated power by rewriting the constitution, purging the civil service and jailing journalists.
“Now is the time to support a secular system and democracy. [Erdogan’s] trying to collapse [them],” Gokcek said. “If you get a sultan, what are you going to do? It’s too late.”
Asked to respond to Gokcek’s characterization, the mosque’s president, Heydar Elevulu, said, “I’m not interested; I’m very busy right now,” and hung up.
Another member of the congregation, though, who owns a mini-mart a block down Middletown Avenue, said that opinions vary within the community.
As with the split between Democrats and Republicans here, Turkish-Americans are “mixed” in their opinions of Erdogan, explained Nadeem Sarwar, owner of the SB Food Mart & Deli. Congregants don’t discuss the politics at the mosque, he added. “Maybe outside, but I never heard anybody” there doing so.
Still, Sarwar said that he doesn’t think many of his fellow mosque members would like a corner nearby dedicated to Ataturk. Personally, he said, he believes streets should be named after “something everybody understands.” Like a “local name, something people know,” he said. He even suggested that Gokcek put his own name on the corner instead.
Gokcek said he hopes he can find support in Quinnipiac Meadows for his petition, once people recognize that Ataturk represents American ideals. Nearby, “this is Erdogan’s side. A lot of Turks don’t like Ataturk,” he said, “but I think American people side for him, side for democracy.”
Longtime residents in the area largely didn’t seem to mind who tiny Scarboro Street was named for.
One neighbor, who complained about the mosque’s conspicuously tall minarets, also argued Ataturk’s name on a signpost, seeing it as yet another leftist push to rewrite history. He cited his opposition to the way the Red Sox are seeking to rename a passage in Fenway Park, scrubbing the team’s longtime owner, who was the last in the league to integrate, from a signpost.
Other neighbors interviewed said they don’t care. “We’re in America, so it’s a free country,” said Javier Lopez, a 15-year resident. “It don’t bother me.”