Thursday, September 16, 2010

Saving Batavia: A Vision of Jakarta's Past and Future

If you leave aside South Jakarta’s business corridor, the high-priced restaurants and the city’s many shopping malls, what are you going to do in a metropolis desperately short of public spaces? Where in Jakarta can you escape the pollution, traffic and pressure for a stroll through shaded streets, a coffee at a sidewalk cafe, a visit to an art gallery and a chance to enjoy the architectural treasures of a forgotten time?

Nowhere, is the obvious answer. At least not yet. But if the decaying treasures of old Batavia, the neighborhood now known as Kota Tua, or Old Town, could be salvaged from more than a half-century of neglect, a gem would be revealed that could become an oasis of calm for city residents and a money-spinning tourist attraction for visitors to Jakarta, most of whom just hurry through their hours here, anxious to change planes for Bali.

For now, of course, apart from the partially restored splendor of Taman Fatahillah and the old Dutch city hall, Kota Tua is largely a mess. Historic structures are falling down, trees grow through collapsed roofs. There are seedy nightspots, traffic chaos and little in the way of economic vitality.

We see it differently. Kota Tua is a treasure, one of the largest stands of original colonial-era architecture in Asia. Refurbished, rezoned and allowed to flourish in a public-private partnership — the outlines of which are in a master plan being considered by the Jakarta governor’s office — Kota Tua could, and we think should, take its place alongside the other architectural marvels of Asia.

That the 17th century Dutch had the power and the temerity to think they could recreate their vision of Europe in a tropical outpost rife with disease may be looked upon now as imperial madness. However, the fact that much of this early history remains standing, having evaded destruction through war or a developer’s bulldozer, is a reality that the current generation, separated from the bitterness of the colonial legacy, can now reclaim.

As this special report shows, Kota Tua is integral to Jakarta’s history, and can be a big part of Jakarta’s future.

In its rush over five decades to expand and modernize, Jakarta has largely forgotten its past. Kota Tua is in trouble. The exquisite historic buildings around Taman Fatahillah are crumbling. The grand old boulevard along the Kali Besar canal reeks of stagnant water. The small shop-houses, some providing refuge for squatters, might as well be occupied by ghosts, given how eerie they look after sundown. Similar treasures in Chinatown and the old Arab district bear the scars of neglect.

The whole place could fade to little more than a memory. But given aggressive leadership and a vision of creative change, a city desperate for beauty and calm amid the urban sprawl could benefit immensely from a revitalized and reborn Kota Tua.

We offer this selection of articles as a starting point for debate, a celebration of the past and a reminder of the treasure in our midst. Let’s not let it fade to dust.

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