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Jakarta's urban heritage gains an audience

History buffs are struggling to preserve a colonial core dating back to 1619, but now in a state of near ruin.

By / December 30, 2008

Preservation: Some 80 percent of Jakarta's historic buildings are in poor condition like these in Kota, Jakarta, pictured Dec. 17.

Adek Berry/Newscom

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As a history undergraduate, Kartum Setiawan liked nothing better than to walk alone through the streets of this city's crumbling colonial quarters, armed with old maps and a vivid imagination. He pictured the Dutch merchants rowing their boats along the canals. In a cobbled square, he recalled the trams that came in the 19th century, opening up new suburbs to the south.

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Today, Mr. Setiawan's day job allows him to keep one foot in the past: He serves as director of a bank museum in Jakarta's historic Kota district. He also runs an amateur history club, one of several that have sprung up in the city in recent years, as interest in urban heritage has grown. Every few months, he organizes a nighttime tour of the district on old-fashioned black bicycles, serenaded by vintage songs playing on a chunky tape recorder.

"This is part of our integrity as a nation, to understand our history. As a way of learning, it's much easier to see objects visually than to read about them in books," he says.

Most visitors to Indonesia's sprawling capital see only the modern trappings of its postwar boom. Jakarta's rich history is harder to unpeel than that of cities like Singapore and Bangkok, where restored colonial-era buildings draw hordes of foreign tourists. In fact, Jakarta is much older: founded in 1619 by Dutch traders who built a walled city called Batavia on the north shore of Java Island. It became the capital of the Dutch East Indies, a far-flung possession that declared independence in 1945.

Modern Jakarta – as it was renamed in 1942 – has turned its back on the past, leaving parts of its colonial core in a state of near ruin. Developers shun these areas, focusing on new neighborhoods in the south of the city. As a result, nearly 80 percent of 284 historic buildings are classified by city authorities as being in poor condition, the Jakarta Post reported.

Blocks from Setiawan's museum is a tantalizing glimpse of the past. Along a stinking canal, rows of colonial-era buildings fester under the afternoon sun. Erected as banks and trading offices by European and Chinese merchants, some are shuttered and dilapidated. Others have rotting wooden balconies and sagging roofs. Grimy minibuses throttle down the streets.

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