The Queen of the East: Jakarta, West Java
If Carel Reyniersz, the 11th governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, was alive today, he would no doubt frown upon outgoing Governor Sutiyoso for the neglect and dire condition of his beloved Batavia.
Reyniersz’s tomb, which adorns Sion Church on Jl. Pangeran Jayakarta in West Jakarta, stands as witness to the growth of the “Queen of the East“, a honorific title for then Batavia.
The oldest functioning church, built in the year 1693, survived the expansion of the city’s core area (where the elites once resided), which was necessary to overcome the infestation of mosquitoes.
To improve living conditions, residents moved to greener areas, away from the swamps. The canal in front of Sion Church is actually part of an old drainage system.
For more than 300 years the rectangular-shaped church, resembling an old Dutch country house, stood serenely in a spacious, clean and well-kept yard.
The expansion of the city, apart from health reasons, was also initiated in response to cramped living conditions. The governor-general’s residence and office, located in an historic red building on Jl. Raya Kali Besar, was relocated to the present National Archives Museum on Jl. Gajah Mada.
Expansion, draining and cleanliness in residential areas were issues that previous city planners kept in mind in upholding the city’s status as the Queen of the East.
But over the last six decades these issues have been largely ignored.
Historical buildings are being squeezed out by modern offices and defaced by squatters.
A walk through old Jakarta, along canals of brackish water and amid the stench of garbage and urine, is a harrowing experience.
Slum areas and ramshackle buildings are around every corner.
As Jakarta commemorates its 480th anniversary, the need to restore its historic beauty has become more pressing.
The Pacific Rim Council on Urban Development (PRCUD), a non-profit agency overseeing architectural and cultural preservation in major cities along the Pacific rim such as Seoul, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta, has urged city officials to look more seriously at conservation efforts.
Despite suffering neglect over the past few decades, old Jakarta still possesses some 300 interesting historical assets including an old warehouse built in 1652 on the sea-front, currently known as Bahari Museum.
Chinese prayer houses, old mosques, a railway station and old parks are among other historical sites situated in the old part of the city.
A serious conservation effort does not involve merely placing potted plants along roadsides and congested areas. Neither should it only result in new busway corridors providing a limited solution to the myriad of traffic problems here.
Rather, serious efforts need to be made to increase people’s mobility in already over-populated areas.
Some urban planners have advocated a revitalization program in the core area of historical downtown Jakarta, while others have voiced concerns that revitalization will not significantly improve conditions for residents.
There is no doubt that a healthy environment stands to benefit everybody. Unhealthy living conditions in crammed areas have only worsened Jakartan’s living conditions.
An increase in the crime rate, gang violence and lack of permanent employment and social welfare have added to the stress of people’s daily lives.
Serious conservation efforts involving government officials, investors and the general public might be able to cure some of these ills.
Provided of course these efforts are coupled with strong political will, as well as transparency in fund management.
The ball is now in Sutiyoso’s court — that is if he can display the political will, albeit at the 11th hour of his tenure, and take serious steps to follow up the suggestions of the PRCUD.
Jakarta may still be able to relive its former glory and compete with Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Beijing in showcasing its historical architecture and rich cultural heritage to attract more tourists.
If not, Sutiyoso will be remembered as the Jakarta governor who only initiated the placement of potted plants in downtown Glodok, while doing nothing to improve living conditions or curb crime in overpopulated areas.
—Retno K. Joyo