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Half-hearted revitalization at the Koningin van het Oosten

Pradaningrum Mijarto
15 November 2009

OUD BATAVIA or Old Batavia that is now known with its Indonesian name of Kota Tua Jakarta or Jakarta Old Town had gone by a range of names. The town was built to resemble cities in the mother country, where the VOC (the Dutch East-India Company) was hailed: The Netherlands—or to be precise: the city of Amsterdam, a city adorned with canals. The Grote Rivier (Grand River), or Kalibesar, was the largest canal running through Batavia and became the vein that sustained life in the city at the time. The depiction of life in Batavia in her early days made many Dutch residents curious, wishing to taste life in Batavia, described as the city by the Ciliwung River, in the tropical land where the Sun was never absent, a city designed as Little Amsterdam by the VOC. To them, Batavia was the Koningin van het Oosten (Queen of the East). Some other also called this city of trade as the Pearl of the Orient.

Several hundreds years later, the area that was the Old Batavia, the origin of Jakarta, has been designated as a heritage area. However, the various efforts to polish the pearl to make it shine again did not actually come to being until 2006, thirty-two years after the initial plan to revitalize the area. Today, the efforts that have taken place for three years still trudge on, occurring in fits and starts. On the one hand, the efforts seem to be mere cosmetics; on the other, many contending interests are vying for attention, all claiming to be in behalf of the Old Town revitalization program. As a result, the Fatahillah Square, the heart of the Old Town and the first area to be refurbished, does not necessarily become better. The most damaging and ironical incident took place in July 2008, when new andesite pavements had just been installed at the Square, which was certainly not meant to serve as a parking place—but the newly-revamped Square was nevertheless used precisely as a parking lot for a grand wedding party at the Art and Ceramics Museum. After the event, it became even more obvious that the Regional Government of the Special Capital Territory of Jakarta, as the party that should be mostly responsible for the area and the revitalization program, had only a short-lived enthusiasm to maintain the program. There are increasingly more traffic jams occurring in the area; the environmental condition stays basically the same; old buildings collapse or are demolished.

* * *

The Fatahillah Square is the heart of the Old Town. As befit a square, it is the place where people gather and have many activities. As a heritage area, the Fatahillah Square should be free from vehicles. However, the efforts taken by the Culture and Museum Agency of the Regional Government of Jakarta, and especially by the Local Technical Unit of the Old Town Area, in chasing away naughty motorists who always pass through the square have often been laughed at—as on Friday to Saturday, July 4 – 5, 2008, the Square was precisely used as a parking lot. It was turned into a car park, holding hundreds of guests’ cars to a wedding party. To add insult to the injury, the Art and Ceramics Museum was treated as a mere rented building, used as a wedding venue, unheeding the code of ethics for museum usage.

The night on Friday, July 4, 2008 saw the wedding of the daughter of Miranda Swaray Goeltom, the then Senior Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia, ironically also the Chairperson of the Jakarta Old Town Kotaku, a non-governmental organization whose concern is for the Old Town. No less ironic is the fact that the Fatahillah Square at the time had just been refurbished under the Old Town revitalization program, costing the local government around Rp7 billions in total.

It is not clear whether no one had thought of the long term consequences, or whether everyone was simply underestimating the potential problems; but it was obvious that there was no concern about the consequences of using the square for the parking place for the thousands of guests of the special party. There were too many under-the-table agreements in this case and, naturally, money played an important role—especially because Miranda, who claimed that she had always been concerned about the Old Town, had helped renovate partially the Art and Ceramics Museum, where the wedding party took place.

Miranda confidently entertained her distinguished guests with a grand dinner party at the permanent collection room of the museum, with the paintings still nicely installed on the walls. Outside, the Local Technical Unit of the Old Town Area had been overwhelmed since the afternoon, as scores of cars passed through the Fatahillah Square. The Unit could not do anything as the ones who filled the Square were the Presidential Security Guards and officials who had given the order to park all cars at the billion-rupiah Square.

Before the party, the permanent collection room was painted rather haphazardly. The paintings stayed on the wall, secured perfunctorily, as the walls were being painted. The museum owner seemed to be unperturbed by the fact that their home was being turned topsy-turvy. The Governor of the Special Capital Territory of Jakarta, Fauzi Bowo, remained silent upon seeing the situation. The guests, members of the community that is often called ‘the literati’, art lovers, and even art curators, were also silent. Not many people knew about this, as all major media did not say anything. Such silence remained even after the event, as the media posed no question about the condition of the newly-refurbished square. Would such resignation take place had the one holding the party not been Miranda Goeltom?

* * *

All in all, the Old Town is indeed in a wretched condition, left alone by both the government and the people, and when people do visit the area, it is mainly to take advantage of the heritage area without the willingness to take care of it seriously. Traces of the colonial time are still visible there in the remaining old buildings, be it the ones that are still standing proudly, or the ones that are on the verge of collapsing. Most of the old buildings are in a dire condition—not only are the buildings unkempt, but the surrounding environment is also pathetic. The Kalibesar or the Grand River has become shallow, full of smelly garbage. Numerous street dwellers and scavengers live in the abandoned buildings, making the area even grubbier, giving it a dubious image. It has so far been difficult for us to trace down the owners of the old buildings in the Old Town area, which has been designated as a heritage area according to the Decree of the Governor of the Special Capital Territory of Jakarta No. 475/1993 on the Heritage Buildings in Jakarta.

Jakarta’s site of origin clearly houses a range of heritage objects and unless we take efforts to save them, the city will become a city without a past, without any historical traces. To make things worse, the Old Town area, or the heart of the former Batavia during the Dutch colony, has been left behind for too long a time by its inhabitants as well as by businesspeople.

The potentials are actually huge. If the area can be truly revitalized and breathe life, with all its cultural heritage intact—be it tangible or intangible—and with a cleaner environment as well as growing businesses, then the area can serve as a trophy area for tourism in Jakarta, and consequently also supports the economy as a whole.

Unfortunately, there are too many contending interests in Jakarta Old Town, with inadequate regulations regarding what one can and cannot do there. As a result, many building owners leave their buildings unattended, besieged by an army of scavengers or tramps, or leaving them slowly to rot and collapse—therefore enabling them subsequently to rebuild the site according to their wishes, turning the site into a place for business (usually an entertainment venue). Then there is also the problem of the traffic, with unending traffic jams in front of the Beos Train Station (or the Jakarta Kota Train Station) up to Bank and Kalibesar Timur Streets. One of the reasons is the minibuses that stop just about anywhere, waiting for passengers.

* * *

It is not that there have been no efforts taken these days. The thing is, the Old Town revitalization project, although it has been going on since 2006, stays merely as an effort of beautification—and a half-hearted one at that. Meanwhile, the heart of the matter—the problems of traffic, safety, comfort, cleanliness, re-using the old buildings—has been left untouched. There is yet to be a comprehensive program that seriously covers all the relevant aspects in the area.

Along the journey of the Jakarta Old Town revitalization program by the Regional Government of the Special Capital Territory of Jakarta, one notes that the late Ali Sadikin, the governor of Jakarta in 1966 – 1977, had already taken the first steps. Unfortunately, subsequent governors after Ali Sadikin did not continue the program. It was only at the end of Governor Sutiyoso’s second term that the Jakarta Old Town revitalization program began again as the government’s dedicated program in 2006.

The program began with the refurbishment of the area in the heart of the Old Town; i.e. the area around Pintu Besar Utara Street and the Fatahillah Square. The pavements on the street and the square were changed with andesite paving, covering Pos Kota, Lada, and Kalibesar Streets. In September 2007, when the first stage of the refurbishment project was concluded at the Pintu Besar Utara Street and Fatahillah Square, Governor Sutiyoso formally announced the program.

It was also in 2006 that the Governor’s Decree No. 34/2006 was issued, stating that the Jakarta Old Town program covers an area of 846 hectares. Previously, the Old Town of Jakarta formally covered only 139 hectares. Today, what we call the “Jakarta Old Town” includes the Archives Building in the south, Luar Batang Village in the north, Bandan Village in the east, and Jembatan Lima in the west. The 846-hectare area of Jakarta Old Town is split into two administrative regions: those of the West Jakarta and North Jakarta. However, from around 200 old buildings in this area, most are on the verge of collapsing. Although in less than 20 years from now Jakarta will have reached a grand age of 500 years, the revitalization of the Jakarta Old Town still has not progressed much.

* * *

To this year, 2009, the pavements on Pos Kota and Lada Streets have just been changed with andesite paving, while the Kalibesar Timur Street is still undergoing some projects to improve the pedestrian lane. All of this has cost the government around Rp90 billion. Although the physical projects on the field are already taking place, the master plan and the working plan have not been approved to this third year. The master plan, prepared by a team under Prof. Ir. M. Danisworo, is perhaps tucked under so many other files, while the working plan—which according to Governor Fauzi Bowo is more important than the master plan—remains dubious. In any case, the master plan has been prepared without the involvement of the stakeholders, especially the residents who live and make their living in the area.

Another problem is related to the inventory of a range of old buildings, the local culture, and the myriad problems in this area—none of which has been thoroughly analyzed before the revitalization program commenced. Various problems are gathered from the field while the project is taking place—which often means that the problems have actually occurred. This is what happens when a revitalization project is thoroughly analyzed from the point of view of urban planning and architecture, so much so that the human beings who have been living, growing, trading, and filling up the area since scores of years ago are often ignored. Cultural, social, environmental, and economic problems play an important role in breathing life into the area, ascertaining the sustainability of the area after it has been physically restored. Without economic activities, revitalization simply means a waste of money.

In short, due to hasty planning, the Jakarta Old Town revitalization program has created more problems rather than solving them. The fact that after the andesite pavements were installed at the Pintu Besar Utara Street and the Fatahillah Square significantly more people visit the area—which in turn affects the surrounding museums—is indisputable. Also, no one will deny that Jakarta Old Town has enjoyed newfound popularity. There are increasingly more pictures of the old seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings providing the background of a range of pictures published on the internet and especially on the social network site Facebook. They spread like viruses and intrigue people to come by and take pictures in the area from which Jakarta has grown.

However, the increasing number of visitors coming to the Old Town, coupled with the absence of a well-thought-out plan and the ignorance on the part of the residents about the value of the cultural heritage there, have given rise to a series of new problems in the area. The billion-rupiah pavement on the Fatahillah Square immediately became damaged; numerous lamps and their covering, installed on the pavement, have been broken, crushed by the vehicles that had the chance to move around the pedestrian area. Even today, many motorbike riders still insist on entering the square with their bike. Various steps have been taken to prevent these vehicles from getting in, but the residents, assisted by a growing number of thugs in the area, remain resourceful and always manage to go around the temporary “fence” installed by the Old Town Local Technical Unit.

It is not only the pavement on the Fatahillah Square that has been damaged, but also the paving on the Pintu Besar Utara Street. The manhole covers are missing, stolen by metal scavengers. The Fatahillah Square suffers an even worse condition: scores of lamps installed on the floor are wasted as they were immediately broken. The andesite pavement is damaged because of the motorbikes and the skateboard riders who keep on slamming their skates on to the floor and even on the stairs to the Jakarta Historical Museum. The museum wall has become dull and is a target of vandalism. The fencing, which the authority has said they would soon install around the Square, is nowhere in sight.

The situation has become worse with the burgeoning number of street side vendors and thugs in a variety of shapes. Such thugs create headaches for anyone wishing to hold an event in the area, as they would immediately conjure up a series of needs, for which a usually large sum of money must be given. Any committee wishing to hold events there, thus brightening up the atmosphere at the Jakarta Old Town, will soon face an expanding budget to deal with these thugs.

So far, it is not clear who is responsible to solve all of those problems; who controls the command post and is responsible to map the existing problems and find the solutions.

* * *

Who is actually responsible to take care of this area? This remains an open question. The Old Town Local Technical Unit was meant to be the one responsible. Later on it would be revealed that the institution does not have the capability to play that role because it lacks adequate resources—financial and otherwise. As a result, the Unit now serves as an alarm of sorts if something happens: for example, if an old building is being demolished. Who is responsible, then? It has now been agreed that the West Jakarta Mayor would play that role. He is also the one who must know what needs to be done for the area. The Mayor has been chosen because he has the required staff that he could dispatch to manage the area. In reality, however, the Mayor has no inkling about the Old Town revitalization program, and his staff, much less.

Honestly, it will not be enough if it is merely the Mayor of West Jakarta and his staff who are responsible for the area. There should be a body, consisting of not only the government but also other relevant parties such as academicians from a variety of disciplines, businesspeople, economists, and heritage lovers. And it should not be only the regional government who is involved here, but also the central government because many neglected buildings there are owned by state enterprises.

From that body, one can select several people to be responsible to give explanations to the public if something happens in the Old Town, so that residents in the area, or anyone for that matter, who wish to ask anything related to that area will not be confused because they have to find different people every time, just as what is happening today. For example, the refurbishment of the pavement and the revamping of the pedestrian lane are the responsibility of the Office of Public Works of the Regional Government of Jakarta, while streets and pedestrian lanes are the responsibility of the Parks Service of Jakarta or the Street Lighting Service of Jakarta. Therefore, if something out-of-place happens, people will have to find all three parties to get a comprehensive answer.

Similarly, if something is wrong about the environment or the heritage buildings, it is increasingly difficult to find any explanation. One recent example is the case of the missing three clocks that used to decorate the monument at the Kota Station Park. This took place last August. It was very difficult to find any information about the whereabouts of the clocks. The Old Town Local Technical Unit, PT Kereta Api (train service; in this case the manager of the Beos/Jakarta Kota Station), the Parks Service of Jakarta, or the manager of Transjakarta bus service, all said that they knew nothing about the clocks. The question, which must be so ineffectively directed to so many parties, remained unanswered for quite some time. At the end of the day, the answer came only late at night from the Parks Service of Jakarta, which explained that the clocks were being serviced because they had been broken. The difficulty in answering such questions might also be due to the ignorance among many different parties, in this case especially the government, regarding the environment/the heritage area at the Old Town. In this area, one not only must take care of the buildings, bridges, or streets, but also many other aspects that make up the area.

The Act No. 5/1992 about heritage objects states that “all heritage objects are owned by the state” and “the management of the heritage sites and objects is the responsibility of the government.” In this act, the government prefers using the phrase of “heritage object” (BCB—benda cagar budaya) instead of “heritage object and heritage area.”

In Jakarta, although there is a Regional Regulation No. 9/1999 about the Maintenance and Usage of the Heritage Buildings and Area, the focus is more on the heritage objects or buildings. For example, the maintenance unit at the Office of Culture and Museums of Jakarta, before it is merged with the unit of tourism, has been focusing more on the maintenance of the heritage objects. Meanwhile, the heritage areas suffer from a lack of attention. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Condet heritage area is failing, as is the traditional Tugu village that is fast collapsing. Will the Old Town area repeat this mistake?

* * *

From our experience so far, including from reviewing the development in the area that is fast becoming more wretched, complicated, and messy instead of more beautiful, we can say that there needs to be a thorough evaluation on the existing process that has been going on for the last three years, covering the work on the field, the results, the impacts on the environment as well as on the overhaul itself. Say, for example, the case of the newly-refurbished Fatahillah Square that is already much damaged due to public ignorance about heritage area—shouldn’t we immediately install the fences there? Similarly, with the walls of the heritage buildings—or in this case the museum itself, which often becomes the victim of acts of vandalism—shouldn’t there be stricter regulations and better surveillance program?

Most importantly, there should be efforts to create the awareness among the public about the importance of a beautiful and enchanting Old Town area; one with a clean, safe, and comfortable surrounding.

This awareness can begin from the inside out, i.e. from the residents themselves. The people there should be a part of the revitalization program. In the program that is currently in place, the people have not been invited to take part; and the publication efforts about the revitalization program are truly lacking, if not altogether absent. In essence, there should be a well-programmed series of steps in this revitalization program, so that after a few months or years one can already see the results—and this should not only include the physical aspects.

Certainly, it takes a lot of money to maintain and conserve old buildings, armed with strict regulations. Understandably, not many people are interested to invest their money in the Old Town area, not only because of the flawed condition of the area, but also due to the absence of regulations regarding tax incentives (or disincentives) for investors.

It is certainly unwise to expect too much from the government—be it the central government or the regional government of the special capital territory of Jakarta—because it will lead us nowhere and perhaps even further complicates the problem. Problems about the seemingly endless revitalization programs in heritage or historical areas are not the monopoly of Jakarta. The city of Semarang has initiated the revitalization program of their old town area since 2003, but it was the business people who finally moved forward, annoyed at the impasse on the part of the government. Certainly, we are not talking about all business people here. It is only the “crazy” and daring but sophisticated business people who are aware of the monetary prospect of the area and understand that the historical area deserves to be revitalized, sold and offered to the public. Naturally, before it can be sold, the whole area needs to be revamped. For your information, the old town area in Semarang can never avoid the sea water flooding that regularly inundates the area.

Of course, it is impossible for us to force investors to do the same thing in the Jakarta Old Town. The image of unending traffic jams and the threat of crimes haunt the investors, providing ready excuses not to put their money in the area. How can they not, if even the relevant government officials are reluctant to visit the Old Town, and even seem allergic to it?

The absence of clear directions, regulations, and guidelines in revitalizing the Jakarta Old Town, which apply to all residents without exceptions, is certainly one of the drawbacks. A thorough planning, which covers the human aspect, still seems elusive. The master plan, which was there but has since gone missing, still leaves many questions unanswered. We need a mature attitude on the part of all parties involved—the government and all the stakeholders—to let go of individual or group interests for the greater common good. Together, we need to discover and bring back to live “the Queen” that has floundered and failed to keep up with the changing times and the development of the city. This is all for the sake of the city’s identity and image, and for the pride of the residents themselves. This is for the sake of the future generations, so that they do not become empty generations because the city where they live is losing its soul.

Jakarta, November 2009

PRADANINGRUM MIJARTO was born in Yogyakarta before she was brought to Jakarta. She became a journalist in Warta Kota daily because of her interests in the urban issues, especially in the urban history and planning. A graduate of the International Relation study at the Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung, she then continued her study about Arts and Heritage at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. The astronomy-enthusiast now manages the column of the old town tourism at the Warta Kota daily and the “kota toea” tourism website, Wisata Kota Toea.

Editor’s note:

Not one mass media covered the event that used the Fatahillah Square and the Art and Ceramics Museum for the wedding venues for Miranda Swaray Goeltom’s daughter on July 4, 2008, except the Warta Kota daily, which published it as front page news (“Bos BI Mantu, Kota Tua Rusak”, or “The Bank Indonesia Boss Parties, the Old Town Is Damaged”, Warta Kota, July 5, 2008). The daily still reported about the event and the damage it caused even two days afterwards. Believing that the public at large should be aware of this case, we invited the writer to discuss more thoroughly about the problems in the Jakarta Old Town.


Fatahillah Square, when used as a parking lot.

The wedding preparation at the Art and Ceramics Museum.

Fatahillah Square, with many visitors and street vendors.

Luar Batang Mosque, at the northern boundary of the Old Town, seen from the Sunda Kelapa port.
Picture by Pradanigrum Mijarto


very nice post, i wis this web continues like this, my felicitations

thanks a lot for some of the articles I read I can finally find the answer to what I'm looking for this through a blog that is very elegant.

shouldn’t there be stricter regulations and better surveillance program?

It was also in 2006 that the Governor’s Decree No. 34/2006 was issued, stating that the Jakarta Old Town program covers an area of 846 hectares.

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