In North Jakarta, New Potential for an Old City
Strolling through Jakarta’s crumbling yet cultural Kota Tua, it’s easy to see the potential of transforming the area into a hub for tourists and citizens alike. Unfortunately, as it currently stands now, the former colonial city is failing to reach its full potential.
Though it does contain some interesting sites, especially its museums, the buildings are in dire need of restoration. Kota Tua contains 182 old edifices, but many owners are reluctant to renovate them due to excessive bureaucratic regulations surrounding the process.
Fortunately, Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama recently announced during a meeting with stakeholders that he was prepared to allot Rp 150 billion ($15.5 million) to revitalize the area. He also noted that he will commence plans to renovate the area to “look like Venice” and become Jakarta’s historical center by 2014.
With Kota’s rich cultural history and ambitious renovation plans in mind, my friends and I decided to make a day out of touring the old city by foot, accompanied by Kartum Setiawan, chairman of Komunitas Jelajah Budaya, an organization focused on promoting cultural art and historical sites around Jakarta. We wanted to see what it looks like now while imagining what would happen if Basuki’s plans are realized.
Kota Tua, also known as Old Batavia, spans 1.3 square kilometers and was previously dubbed “the Queen of the East” by European sailors in the early 16th century. Built around a canal system, the Dutch government mainly utilized the city as a base for commerce and military defense, as well as an administrative center. The walls that used to contain the city have since been torn down, but Kota still maintains its original design, making it relatively simple to navigate compared with the rest of Jakarta.
Over time, the capital’s city center was gradually repositioned further south toward the National Monument area in Central Jakarta’s Merdeka Square, but the antiquated remnants of the Dutch architecture in Kota Tua remain intact — some buildings are abandoned, while others have been converted into museums, banks, offices and commercial stores.
We started our journey at Museum Mandiri — an art deco building originally built in 1929 for the Dutch Factorij Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij, or the Netherlands Trading Corporation. NHM shipped and sold commodities, though it eventually progressed from commerce into banking.
Bank Mandiri later acquired the building and has transformed the former factory into a museum dedicated to Indonesia’s banking system in the 1930s. Located across Stasiun Kota, Museum Mandiri was designed by J. de Bruyn, A.P Smits and C. Van der Linde. Admission to the museum is free.
We found our way in quite easily and were greeted by two statues of old guards in colonial garb and a display that simulated a Dutch teller. The original black, gray and red tiles still adorn the floor, while a large, well preserved ledger showing company accounts between 1833-1837 is on display in the middle of the room. The museum also dedicated an area to the Chinese clients, who were holders of large plantations and trade companies at the time.
The basement houses a safe deposit vault, a cash room, individual lockers and old bank documents such as deposit slips, checks and stock certificates. In one room, pieces of tram tracks that were torn down during the time of Sukarno’s administration are displayed, showing what Kota Tua could have been like today if the tram was still around.
A computerized map in the museum compares and contrasts old Batavia with today’s Kota, showing the gradual construction of the city and its canals over time.
As it was a Sunday, the terrace gardens accommodated small local bands that have been playing in rotation since early last month.
We made our way through the noise and up the stairs to the top floor, passing by stained glass windows made by Cornelis de Houtman, the first Dutch captain to set his sails for Indonesia.
The upper floor of the museum showcases old layouts of boardrooms, antique furniture, calculating machines, manual presses and old currencies.
“If you want to see a currency collection more extensive than this, you will have to visit Museum Bank Indonesia, but this museum is the only one that displays old banking documents,” explained Kartum as we headed down on a mahogany wood lift. We made our way out of the museum toward Kali Besar by way of Jl. Pintu Besar Utara, passing by Bank Indonesia.
“Most of these old buildings are properties owned by Bank Mandiri that were acquired overtime through the merging of the different banks,” Kartum noted while guiding us through the roads.
Straight roads and stone pavement from when the streets were first built are still perfectly intact throughout the district. If you factor out the cleanliness and frantic traffic, the walk easily resembles walking along the old city in Singapore.
We stopped by the bridge on Kali Besar to take in the view. Considering all of the floating garbage and the strong odor emanating from the water, the fact that it was once used by the Dutch as a canal system and means of getting around seems so unlikely nowadays. We tried to imagine how beautiful it could be if it was sanitized and illuminated at night.
Our group strolled through the sides of the canal, passing by old colonial houses and office buildings. Some were dilapidated former printing houses with chipped paint and corroded brick walls. Wooden benches sit underneath trees on the sides of the canal.
We stopped in front of the newly restored Toko Merah, a building located on the west side of Kali Besar. The building, known for its red facade, was constructed in the 1730s, making it one of the oldest buildings in Jakarta. It served as the Dutch Naval Academy, which is believed to be the oldest Naval Academy in Asia. It then was converted to a residence for several governor generals of Batavia. Now a conference hall and commercial gallery, it hosted Basuki when he spoke about the area’s future restoration plans.
“Lets walk towards Museum Fatahillah,” Kartum suggested, as we moved forward to the pedestrian-only area. Hawkers, side squatters and vendors lined the roads leading to the square where the museum is located.
A large stone fountain in the center of the square could easily be Jakarta’s version of the Fontana di Trevi in Italy.
I imagined how wonderful it could be if the whole district was fully restored. If the area was cleaned and the hawkers were relocated to a collective market, the area could be a cultural hub of sorts, a center much like Amsterdam Square with museums, art schools, renovated antique hotels and a tree-lined boat canal with wooden benches to lounge on during a sunny day.
Previous governors have planned to restore the old city, but as admitted by a source in the government who wished to remain anonymous, a lack of coordination between different governmental agencies and excessive bureaucratic hierarchy caused delays in the implementation of a master plan.
Perhaps granting permits for commercial development, with strict regulations for the preserving architectural heritage of the city in conjunction with supervision from Ikatan Arsitektur Indonesia could be an effective method for restoring Kota.
If it is continuously and properly maintained, Kota Tua has the potential to change Jakarta for the better for generations to come.