Jakarta aims to restore crumbling old town to former colonial glory

Colonial area of capital, crumbling after decades of neglect, is set to undergo major regeneration

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 8:21pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 5:45pm


Once-resplendent facades sagging in the tropical heat and empty shells of colonial-era buildings are depressing signs that the old town of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, once considered the "Jewel of Asia", has suffered decades of neglect.

Palm trees grow through crumbling windows in what was once the centre of power for Indonesia's Dutch colonial rulers, and many buildings that are still intact lie empty, stained grey by fumes from passing traffic.

But Jakarta's popular governor, Joko Widodo, has a new plan to overhaul the old town and attract more tourists.

"It has to be done, otherwise it is going to deteriorate," said Indonesian writer Goenawan Mohamad, a member of the group set up to regenerate the old town. "It's about time."

The old town, in modern-day north Jakarta, was once a global maritime trading centre. With its whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets, the area for centuries made up almost the whole of Jakarta, then known as Batavia.

Jakarta has expanded into a bustling city with a population of some 10 million, and the old town has fallen into disrepair.

Some small sections have been preserved. Cobbled Fatahillah square, the heart of the old town and the most visited part, is in good condition and is packed out with vendors selling trinkets to passing tourists. But outside this small area most of the buildings are in a state of serious decay.

Joko - elected last year - and his supporters hope their initiative might at last return some colonial splendour to Jakarta.

They have created an umbrella organisation to oversee the regeneration, with members including private firms, a former government minister and a heritage group.

Crucially they have the strong backing of the Jakarta authorities, who have pledged a 150 billion rupiah (HK$100 million) budget for the regeneration.

Already a visitor centre and exhibition space for contemporary art are due to open next month. The consortium intends to renovate 85 historic buildings over five years, a programme it says will create 11,400 jobs.

However, some have expressed fears overenthusiastic development might destroy the old town's charms and transform it into an area full of ugly modern buildings and shopping malls.

"It is a city, it's not Disneyland," said Ella Ubaidi, owner of a colonial-era building in the old town.